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Great Moments: A Daughter Remembers

Carol Weston
From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93

My father was a big man who smoked a big cigar.

As a young girl, I wore the golden rings from his cigars with pride. As a grown woman, I still like the rich smell of a fine cigar.

Some people gag and wave their arms when caught in a cloud of secondary smoke. For them, cigar smoke is akin to bus exhaust. For me, the aroma of a good cigar is evocative and masculine. It is my madeleine. It transports me back to my childhood, a temps perdu.

I remember Dad's ritual for lighting up. He'd pull a cigar from his shirt or jacket pocket, a place where other fathers may have stored pens or neatly folded handkerchiefs. Then, Dad would slide off the paper ring and I'd accept it like a prize. While I'd slip the ring on my finger, he'd nip off the tip of the cigar and strike a match. A few purposeful tokes, and the end of the cigar would usually become a glimmering ember, a perfect circle. My job was to blow out the match. How many times did I do that? 1,000? More?

Sometimes Dad caught me by surprise and would blow a puff of gray smoke right in my face. I'd giggle and protest. Yet I knew even then that he was no fire-breathing dragon. It was like when I watched him shave in the morning, and he'd flick his fingers, spritzing water in my face. Signs of love from a man who didn't often say it with words.

He said it loud and clear in other ways: when he played Scrabble and gin rummy with my brothers and me; when he took us shopping for shoes or records; when he picked us up after school dances, when he hummed in the kitchen as he prepared turkey pot pies or vitello tonnato.

And always, there was a cigar in the picture.

When we were very young, my brothers and I once pooled our pennies to buy cigars for Dad's birthday. The local drugstore sold Tiparillos for under a dollar. We handed the clerk our carefully counted coins, and she wrapped the thin cigars in cherry-red paper. We thought we'd found the perfect gift.

I don't remember Dad thanking us, though I'm sure he did. I don't remember him smoking them, though I'm sure he didn't. I just remember three young children aiming to please and being--more or less--right on track.

Thing is, Dad preferred expensive cigars, ones we kids couldn't possibly afford. He'd drive into New York City and buy them at quality tobacco stores, coming home with hinged wooden boxes, that I knew, if I'd just be patient, would someday be mine for crayons, makeup, hair ribbons. Sometimes he bought cigars not from a tobacconist but from a Cuban who spent his days in a hidden-away shop carefully and skillfully rolling tobacco leaves.

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