Tuesday, April 12, 2011


A few days ago, I walked out of one of the buildings I was teaching in, passing right through the unofficial smokers' zone a few steps from the door. To my surprise, one of the smokers was sitting there on a bench, puffing away on a pipe, and I felt--as I often do when I smell pipe smoke--a powerful burst of nostalgia.

For years when I was growing up, my dad smoked a pipe, most often using Middleton's "Cherry Blend" tobacco (in fact, I think I remember that getting tobacco for him was considered, back in those long-ago days, an appropriate kind of Christmas or birthday present from us kids!).

But, anyway, the smell of pipe smoke is one I just can't help associate with my childhood. To a lesser degree, I also have surprisingly clear memories of the various rituals involved in his pipe smoking: my dad knocking the ash out of the pipe by beating it on his shoe, or using pipe cleaners for actual pipe cleaning, or re-filling his Zippo lighter with fluid. I remember, too, the peculiar metallic clink of the Zippo snapping shut. But it's the smell of the smoke that has stuck with me the most. I won't say I never felt a little queasy to be stuck in the back seat of a moving car filled with smoke, and I can't say that I have any specific or particular happy memories focused on pipe smoke, but, as smells so often seem to do, the sweetness of pipe smoke gives me a brief reminder, somehow, of what it was like to be eight or ten or twelve.

The story we'd always heard was that my mom had encouraged him to switch from cigarettes to the pipe for health reasons (this had to be around 1960, and she might have gotten it wrong, as it turns out), and I can't say I ever remember him smoking a cigarette. Certainly, cigarette smoke doesn't smell good to me.

My dad quit smoking sometime when I was in college: I remember being home during a summer or winter break, and saying, "Hey, I haven't seen you smoke your pipe for a while," and he said he'd quit. To me, it looked like quitting had been no big deal, since I never saw him going through it, but I had a summer job in the factory where he worked, and I was looking in his toolbox for something at some point and I found a half-empty cigarette pack. Cold turkey it wasn't, I guess.

It's been strange to think back on all this: if he started smoking in high school, he probably smoked for less than thirty years, and it's been almost that long now since he stopped. And so it's been almost thirty years since I saw--or smelled--him smoking. And while I certainly am glad he stopped, and I don't want him to take it up again, I'd be lying if I didn't say there was a part of me that misses it.

And that I wouldn't have expected, until I smelled that smoke the other day.


Erica said...

My dad smoked a pipe when he was in college and the Coast Guard, but stopped long before I was even born.

I actually have a very similar response to the smell of coffee (which I can encounter far more easily); it's what I smelled every morning waking up as my dad was making his first cup of the day. I still love the smell, and even though I'm not that fond of actually drinking coffee (without a ridiculous amount of sugar), I like getting a cup just to be able to sniff it.

Horace said...

And my grandfather, too, smoked Middleton's Cherry. And Proust had it right.

Susan said...

My dad smokes a pipe. He has a favorite tobacco - Stuyvesant Blend - that is made here in Albany. He always picks some up when he visits.

One day he was sitting in a park bench in Portland, Maine smoking his pipe. A woman walking by asked him if he was from Albany. He answered, "No, but my daughter lives there." The woman replied, "I grew in Albany, and the smell of your pipe reminded me of my childhood."

So, yes, tobacco smoke is a powerful memory stimulator!

Michael said...

Pipe smoke is a similar memory trigger for me, too. My dad alternated between cigarettes, pipes, and the occasional cigar. I even tried a pipe in college, but thought I looked quite silly and only smoked it in the privacy of my bedroom