Mom’s creativity didn’t condone tobacco


I like to fight back against the health-food and exercise addicts.  “My father,” I claim, “prescribed salt – a pile, a pillar, of it  against infection, a cigarette as a cure for a cold, and a shot of Four Roses as a pick-me-up for low spirits.” He wouldn’t let me exercise, it might drain my energies better spent over the books.  

But this illustrated tale is about the value of tobacco in the life of a young man on the road of life.

As you might know, the pipe is the symbol of the contemplative, the thoughtful, life. A cigar can guarantee prosperity in business, an aid to making deals after careful consideration. A cigarette, in a fancy holder, can tilt upward, like that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, toward a political life of ambition and hope for victory, in the ballot boxes and on the battlefields.

Now my mother, I mean our mother, didn’t puff on the poisons of the weed, but she didn’t disapprove. If you were going to smoke, she was going to go along and support her troops: her three sons. She gave the first-born a Sherlock Holmes-style pipe, plus a little green plaster model of a wingchair to set the pipe on until next twilight time. (We were in the furniture business in those long-gone days.)

Second son liked to go first-class among his boyish pleasures and hobbies. He smoked Camels, as did our Dad. The pack bore a fine illustration of the desert beast of burden and those ornate columns at the corners. Maybe a smoke was a visit to the Holy Land.  

I was the baby among the boys, and when I left town for the blue and white of Yale, our talented mother wrote me letters and penny postcards decorated on the front (address side) with charming illustrations and decorations. I offer them here for your amusement. Now, a liberal arts education doesn’t guarantee you a skill, a profession, a job, or a vocation. It exists both for your leisurely, spiritual existence, and for the development of your mind for its own sake. That’s how you clench the stem of a pipe or clutch the polished wooden bowl within your palm.

When the eldest lad married, I didn’t take out my pipe at the bar at the bachelor dinner. No, I un-did the wrapping, put on the pretty paper ring, cut, (or bit off) the chewing end and lit up a proper and pompous cigar!   That was to wish success and expansion upon the forthcoming future for my brother.

When my lovely and whimsical mom drew a cigarette, it was to bless my ambitions, whatever they might turn out to be.  When she gave me the ivory-white porcelain pipe, symbol of Yale, along with a tin of Brigg’s tobacco (motto: “when a feller needs a friend”) as well as a plaid pouch to store whatever I might stuff into my instrument for inhalation, well, it didn’t mean I SHOULD smoke. It meant, rather, if you DO smoke, here’s a l’chaim of good cheer.

Nothing really works once you move on from your childhood, your boyhood or girlhood. You do the best you can and hope for the best. You try to please your parents, but you have to take what the fates have in store for you.

I spent a long afternoon hunting for these envelopes and postcards. I made a mess of the house in the process. But, voila! I succeeded in recovering what are treasures for me. I wasn’t moved either to tears or to smiles. Only to a vast admiration for my mother’s innate creativity and good humor, plus her worrying about what would become of us. What DID? And what WILL, yet?

MIKE FINK ( teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.