Today is “World No Tobacco Day,” and I just found out Mary Louise passed away. We were not close, hardly what you would call friends, but still, news like this can trigger old memories.
People quit smoking for all kinds of reasons. Fear of lung cancer, heart disease, stroke and some folks are just plain tired of taking flack from non-smokers. New laws are in place making it far more inconvenient and expensive for smokers to hang onto the habit.
Fear of becoming a prematurely wrinkled, prune-faced old lady is what did it for me. The place, a hotel ballroom in Omaha, the occasion, my high school’s 25th class reunion.
I lit my first cigarette at midnight New Year’s Eve, to celebrate my 18th birthday, and like the maiden cigarette for most people, that first one was terrible. I choked and coughed, exactly like they do in movies. But, holding a cigarette made me feel sophisticated and more confident. I thought I looked so good people wouldn’t notice my basic shyness. Peer pressure to smoke was a definite factor — and unfortunately it still is.
I rarely smoked around my family since they hated it, but I had moved away from home and, in those days, nobody got all that huffy about smokers.
I had some rituals with my cigarettes that made other smokers laugh. Menthols were my thing, and I kept them in the refrigerator, thoroughly enjoying a couple of cigarettes in the morning with my coffee. If I went to a party, there were always a few cigarettes in my purse, wrapped in foil to keep them ultra fresh. It never occurred to me to stop smoking, not even after hearing how bad it is for your health.
Then came the night of the class reunion. Eventually, I broke away from the circle of old school friends and headed for the ladies room. Out of habit, while freshening my makeup, I lit a cigarette, balancing it on the sink, where it sat sending up a stream of smoke.
A moment later, Mary Louise Gunderson (not her real name) joined me at the mirror. I didn’t especially like Mary Louise in high school, and I didn’t like her any better on this occasion. She was always on the honor roll in school, spouted long words nobody else understood and seemed to look down her nose at my friends and me. But now we were alone in the ladies room, so there was no choice but to be friendly.
“Hi,” I smiled. “This certainly is a milestone for all of us, isn’t it?”
Mary Louise looked at me, then wrinkled her nose over the smoke that was wafting up between us. “You know, Bobbie Jo,” she said, “for someone who was as bright as you were in school, I’m surprised you’re a smoker!”
How weird, I thought. Then curious, I asked, “What makes you say that, Mary Louise?”
“Well,” she said, with her old annoying superiority, “I should think you would know what it’s doing to your skin!”
“My skin?” I said, peering into the mirror, to get a closer look at my face.
“Yes,” she announced with great emphasis. “Women who smoke look old much faster than those of us who don’t!”
Ouch! It was like a punch in the stomach. Old? Before my time? Premature wrinkles? While I stared at my reflection in the mirror, half expecting to see new lines and creases suddenly appearing right then and there, Mary Louise droned on and on about how smoking sucks all the moisture out of the skin, constricts blood vessels, reduces blood flow, messes up the capillaries — there she goes with the big words again — and makes a smoker’s face look gray and pasty. Forget what it was doing to my lungs, this was sheer vanity getting my attention.
No way did I thank Mary Louise for her insufferable wisdom. But I snuffed out that cigarette, then spent the next five minutes washing my hands while deep in thought. I couldn’t stand the idea of being prematurely wrinkled with pasty skin. That cigarette was my last.
And then we attended the 50th class reunion. There was Mary Louise and a few of her remaining close friends. There aren’t that many old graduates left. All I could think was, “If not now, then when?” I went over and thanked her for being the reason I quit smoking. She just looked at me and said she had no idea what I was talking about.
Oh well, at least I’m grateful for having told her while I still could. Thanks to Mary Louise, I’ve had many years of happy capillaries — whatever they are.
Bobbie Lippman is a professional writer who lives in Seal Rock with her cat, Purrfect. She is the author of “Good Grief: A Collection of Stories As One Woman Journeys From Heartbreak To Healing Through Honesty and Humor.” The book, with all proceeds going to the Rotary International Foundation, is available at JC Market in Newport and directly from Bobbie, who can be contacted at [email protected]