My younger son was suspended from his private middle school for selling cigars on campus. That's not necessarily a bad thing.
I am a cigar smoking mother who has been banished to the porch by the men in my family. I find this exile sweet, since it means that for one hour, whatever crises my men have are theirs to handle. Cigar smoke keeps more than mosquitoes away.
One evening last fall, I was enjoying my last smuggled Cuban H. Upmann. The maple trees had turned the color of Connecticut shade and the sky was a deep New England blue. A lone stalwart cricket was my only smoking companion. The door to the house squeaked open and Zev, my younger son, came out to the porch. We sat together listening to the cricket, hearing even its movement through leaves. He asked if he could try a puff of my Upmann. I hesitated, then passed it over. He tried a puff or two, nodded his approval and passed it back. Then we spoke--really spoke. Parent and 15 year old. He knew he could tell me anything on that porch and I would listen.
Thus began our evening conversations. I'd let Zev try a few puffs of whatever I was smoking and he'd give his opinion. He liked Punch better than Macanudo, thought Avo had a bit of a bitter aftertaste. We both loved La Gloria Cubana. After a discussion of cigars we'd go on to whatever was on his mind.
One evening, after a try at an Arturo Fuente panatela, Zev revealed that he smoked cigarettes on occasion. I opened my mouth to snap at him, but closed it again. Instead we spoke--about stress,
school, being 15 in this kind of world. I realized that large parts of my son's life were beyond my ability to protect or my power to command.
The idea came to me. He wanted the same kind of contemplation and space I did. That was why he joined me on these brisk nights. Why not let him smoke a cigar? While not ideal at his age, it seemed to be a healthier alternative than cigarettes. He agreed.
Perhaps it was the aroma of the Arturo Fuente, perhaps the very stars themselves led me to disaster. On the porch my son was sweet, reasonable, mature. I forgot what being 15 years old usually did to a reasonable mind.
Zev loved the small cigars I bought him so much that he decided to share his discovery with his school friends. Being a committed capitalist, he sold cigars to his friends at a healthy profit--especially considering the initial monetary outlay was mine.
During ski team practice, two of Zev's friends decided the ski lift was the perfect place to enjoy a cigar. The headmaster did not agree. By the end of the day, the perpetrators were apprehended and their source revealed. By the end of the week, an inquisition was assembled. The three boys received five weeks suspension. My husband was furious with me. I was furious with Zev.
I assigned Zev to a period of unpaid servitude in the bookstore where I worked. There, a miracle happened. The harder he worked, the more responsibility they gave him. The more responsibility he got, the better he worked. For five weeks, Zev manned the computer, waited on customers, took book orders. Because he was one of the best workers in the store, the manager began paying him in spite of my protests. We talked and joked and took lunch hours together. I actually missed him when he finally went back to school.
There was a cost. Zev is going to his second choice of high school because the first choice rejected him due to the suspension. That broke his heart. I spent a lot of time punishing myself for what I considered stupid parenting and its results.
One night, after I'd told this tale to a group of friends, one of them pulled me aside. He had just recently made a success of himself after years wasted on drugs and alcohol. He put his arm around my shoulder and said, "You know, if my mother had sat out on the porch smoking cigars with me, my life would have been very different."
So perhaps this all was for the good. Zev has adjusted to his new high school and admits it might be the best place for him after all. He doesn't hang out on the porch with me so much anymore. But the bonds forged over a good cigar are hard to break. We speak to each other, we hear each other as we never did before. I exacted a no-smoking-until-18 promise from Zev. In return I made him a promise. For his high school graduation Mom has to get him a Cohiba.
Rhonda Shapiro-Rieser is a writer and mother living in Greenfield, Massachusetts.