He liked to sit on his porch and smoke, my father. It was a constant source of frustration that we could never, not even at his last dying breath, get him to quit. He had this little wooden box that held a full carton of his brand, Winston. With handprinted lettering that said, “Nails for your coffin,” which he thought was hilarious. That box was never empty.
(Scene of the incident. The oval shaped stain on the concrete patio, in front of my father's feet, remained. )
In each house he and mother lived he had a smoking chair. A place where the ashtray sat and where burn marks scarred upholstery and table tops. I suppose he could be considered a polite smoker. He never lit up in other peoples homes and smoked outside as much as possible to lessen the frustration of my mother, and the rest of us. But winter months made it harder and he’d find a place in the garage. When restaurants and public places banned smoking he’d find the designated outside areas and make friends. He always carried a lighter, which made him popular with fellow puffers.
By far his favorite place to smoke, for the last 15 years of his life, was on the patio of their retirement home in Palm Desert, California. Gazing out over the 17th fairway to the San Jacinto mountains he’d puff away waving at four-comes, often his friends. With retirement my mother refused to continue to clean up the ashtrays and he’d learned to wrap up the evidence in foil so the garbage cans were not reeking with the stale scent of discarded butts. The desert winds blew bits that burned holes in the porch cushions and his golf shorts. He kept smoking.
He enjoyed going out early in the morning, just as the sun was coming up. I made a gift of a delightfully fluffy and warm robe that he adored wearing on chilly desert mornings. Along with his coffee and a pack of cigs he’d greet the dawn patrol maintenance team of the golf club. Then this happened on one particularly windy morning. After lighting his cigarette the wind grabbed a lit ash where it landed right on his lap and the robe instantly caught fire.
Startled, he jumped up as the flames moved up the sash of the robe. He quickly pulled the sash and slid out of the robe as it burst into total flames. The robe lay flaming and smoldering on the patio floor. My father sat down, unscathed, watching the fabric melt into a puddle of charred ash. He finished his cigarette.
In only boxer shorts he went back inside to wake my mother. When he described what had happened she started to cry, presumably because she realized how it could have been so much worse. When they went to inspect the patio and evaluate the damage she was even more shaken. My father, however, decided the reason this all happened could not possibly be that he was smoking in the wind, or that he had any responsibility for this. He marched to the phone to call me, to proclaim that this entire incident was Nordstrom’s fault. That is where I had bought the robe.
“I want you to write them,” he barked at me, “they need to fix this patio.”
No amount of reasoning could convince him differently, but eventually the matter was dropped. My mother hired a cleaning service and the best they could do was remove the char. The stain remained in plain view and where my father continued to sit till weeks before his death, of lung disease.
He once told me he learned to smoke at the age of 15. I know he thoroughly enjoyed the sensation, the relaxation, everything about smoking. He lived until just before his 88th birthday which I suppose is pretty remarkable given that he was a 2-pack-a-dayer for his entire life. Winston lost a good customer with his death.
Some of the best talks he and I had were when he was relaxed, contemplative, insightful, encouraging, and where he always, always had a cigarette in his hand. He was a remarkably generous, sarcastic, clever, loyal, funny and thoroughly entertaining person. He was my Winston man.