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.
By the time my brothers and I were teenagers, we did a much better job of buying birthday cigars. By then, we had also come to admire Dad's ability to unwind and relax. Dad had a quick mind and a deep laugh and he knew how to make time for family and friends, music and books. He'd sit in his comfortable armchair and listen to Bach as he smoked. He didn't try to simultaneously riffle through papers or neaten shelves. His serenity was a wonderful antidote to the stress that lay like a net waiting to entangle the rest of us.
As a teenager, I also remember finding Dad outside on late summer nights. I'd step onto the deck, look at the constellations, listen to the crickets, smell that friendly cigar scent, then find the small round light. Dad's red light was my green light. If he was on the porch swing, I'd join him, the glow of his cigar matching the mood of father and daughter sharing the news of the day.
Call me sentimental. I know most girls don't grow nostalgic at the sight of a stogie. Most don't recall their youth through an opaque gray haze. But many didn't have a father who, with his slow cigar, always had time to talk.
A friend of mine took a photograph of my father and me two weeks before my wedding, two years before Dad died. In it, I'm 23 and wearing the wedding dress my mother wore. Dad is wearing Bermuda shorts, smoking a cigar, and--as a joke--holding a pitchfork. The portrait is a takeoff on Grant Wood's "American Gothic," but it shows affection not austerity. Entitled "Father of the Bride," the photograph hangs signed and framed in my kitchen. It's a surefire conversation starter.
My mother was a bride again several years ago. She married a wonderful man, and they live in my childhood home, now expanded. When you walk in, the house smells fresh and clean, with not a trace of a cigar. The ceilings are painted bright white, with not a hint of how they had yellowed. And there are no ashtrays anywhere. My brothers and I never did learn to smoke.
After Dad's sudden death, at age 68, there was an autopsy. It was a strange consolation to us that Dad's lungs were clear and healthy. And it was a great comfort to us to remember how good Dad had been at enjoying his life. And how, as with his cigars, he had savored it to the end.
Carol Weston is the author of Girltalk: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You (HarperCollins, 1992) and From Here to Maternity: Confessions of a First-Time Mother (Little, Brown, 1991).