I was on the internet the other day and found this old personal essay I’d published several years ago in Savvy Women’s Magazine, a publication I used to write regularly for. I think the piece still holds up relatively well, so I’ve decided to republish it here. So, for your reading pleasure, I present “Why Granny Smoked.”
I’m sitting here thinking about my great-grandmother, my “Granny,” a woman who was born in the nineteenth century and died in the twentieth, at the age of ninety-two, mostly from terminal orneriness.
I’ve got a good, clear picture of her in my mind. She had sunken eyes and great moles on her face. She wore cat-eye glasses and dipped snuff until she traded that bad habit in for another—lighting up. She smoked her first Marlboro when she was in her 80s.
I used to go see her once a month or so whenever we had family get-togethers. We would pile into our car, drive down our gravel road, and putter to town, which happened to be sleepy Georgetown, Texas, where she lived in a little house on Maple Street with her husband, my “Granddad,” a bear of a man who tottered around the place and never said a word to anyone that I ever heard. Their four children—Etta Merle, Sherman, Mavis, and Estelle—also lived in Georgetown or in towns not far away. By the way, Etta Merle, the eldest, is my maternal grandmother, a woman who, to this day, I refer to as my “Memaw.”
I have noticed that whenever anyone in the family reminisces about Granny, the first thing they’re apt to mention is the greenness of her thumb. She took that special ability with leafy things and used it to turn the space around her house into a tiny version of the Amazon rainforest.
Because of the surrounding jungle, it was very hard to see my great-grandparent’s house when we drove up and parked on the street in front of it on one of our visits. We knew it was back there, somewhere, among the vines and things, if for no other reason than part of its roof was visible from our vantage point, looming up above all that foliage. Walking down their front sidewalk was like a trip through the heart of darkness. A machete would have come in handy as we made our way to the front door. I always expected some exotic creature, like a capybara or a tapir, to dart out of the undergrowth and run across the sidewalk in front of us. All these years later, I can still hear my mom say, “Granny ought to have someone come in here and thin all this out some,” as we walked along.
“But they like it this way,” my dad would remind her. “At least she does.”
“I know it.”
“It reminds me of a Tarzan movie,” I added.
“I hope there are no headhunters…or cannibals,” my father said, and then he chuckled.
In 1970, when Granddad died of what some among us colloquially referred to as “hardening of the arteries,” the family decided that it was in Granny’s best interest to have her move in with her children. She spent a lot of time living with her eldest daughter, and because I spent so much of my young life at my Memaw and Pawpaw’s house, I got to know Granny a lot better in her last few years.
My grandparents put her up in a bedroom toward the rear of their little country cottage. Two decades earlier it had been my uncle’s room and hadn’t been slept in much after he graduated from high school and went off into the wide world to find his own unique place. To help Granny feel more at home, they’d rearranged the furniture and brought in a slew of potted plants that she’d had in her own house.
One afternoon, after school let out, I was at my grandparent’s home, just sitting on their living room floor watching High Chaparral, an old cowboy program that must have been filmed in Arizona or southern California. My Memaw was behind me, on her olive-green couch. She had her knitting glasses on and was going to town with her needles on a sweater she was making for my grandfather, an honest-to-goodness cowboy. She abruptly put everything down and said, “Do you smell smoke?”
I sniffed and then nodded my head.
The two of us got up and followed our noses to where they led us, which was toward the rear of the house. Granny’s door was cracked just enough for us to peek in, which we did. By covering one eyeball with my hand and then pressing the other one up to that slit, I could see her, sitting in a corner of the room, surrounded by plants, their outstretched tendrils nearly blocking her from view. Though she was partially hidden by that greenery, I spotted enough of her to notice something strange and unprecedented–a lit cigarette dangling from her lips.
“Mother!” Memaw said as she pushed the door open. “What are you doing?”
“Sitting here. What does it look like I’m doing?”
“I can see that. You know that’s not what I’m asking about.”
“What are you asking about, then?”
“About…about…that thing sticking out of your mouth!”
“Oh, you mean the cigarette?”
“That’s right…that CIGARETTE.”
“OK, so I’m smoking,” she answered matter-of-factly.
“I can see that, but why? And where did you get that thing?”
“Why not? Please use the right word, daughter. It’s called a cigarette, and I got it down at the store, along with two whole packs of them, which means I got forty cigarettes, or maybe only thirty-three or so now that I’ve had a few.”
“When were you at the store?”
“I didn’t know you went down there.”
“I do a lot of things you don’t know about. I may be old, but I’m not dead yet. I can still get around pretty good.”
“OK, so you went down to the store yesterday all by yourself, but why are you smoking?”
Granny, with her teeth sitting in a jar not far away, looked at my Memaw defiantly without giving an answer.
My great-grandmother’s newly acquired habit of sitting in her room and puffing away became the subject of much conversation in the family. My dad speculated that Granny was tired of living and had decided to take up a habit she thought might speed things along, so to speak. Other people had different theories. Some of them made sense, others seemed, well, just strange. We all gave all these hypotheses lots of consideration.
One day I decided to find out for myself what the reason was. I tiptoed down the hallway and knocked on Granny’s door. “Yes, who is it? That’s not you, is it Etta?” she asked.
“No, it’s me,” I said.
“Come in then.”
I stepped into her room and saw that she was holding the stub of a burning cigarette between her fingers and that the air in the room was sort of hazy with blue smoke.
“Can I ask you something, Granny?”
“Sure, honey, what is it?”
“Why did you start smoking?”
Granny looked directly at me. Her eyes seemed to suddenly narrow and then tear up, but I doubted she was crying.
“Because it’s fun. That’s why. Plus, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. At my age, a person doesn’t get many chances to do something brand new.”
“Do you like it?”
She thought for a second, took a drag, and then answered, “Very much.”
“But Memaw says that it stinks,” I informed her.
“Your Memaw has a funny nose.”
I thought about the implications of having a nose that was funny.
“Do you mind if I sit with you for a while?” I asked her a few seconds later.
“I don’t mind a bit, but you might get bored sitting with me. I’m nothing but an old bag of bones.”
“I won’t get bored.”
“Are you sure?”
I shook my head up and down very sincerely.
“Good. To tell you the truth, I feel like having a little company just this very minute.”
I kicked my shoes off and jumped up on her bed.
“Now, what else would you like to know?” Granny asked.
I thought for maybe a minute, and then I opened my mouth.