The Secret…

I’m guilty of not giving Mom a fair shake at times. Until I was 10 or 12, I thought the sun rose and set on her. To be fair, her life was not easy from the get-go. She and her twin brother Floyd lost their mom when they were 2 weeks old. Although they had 2 sets of doting grandparents who raised and adored them, Mom always felt her dad blamed her and Floyd for their mother’s death. Her dad left the child rearing to his parents and in-laws. And never was a very involved father. She learned rejection at a very young age.

 

Maternal grandma Berghuis with Florence and Floyd, 1927…


Mom professed her devotion for both sets of grandparents, yet she seemed awfully eager to be away from them. She was smart and got good grades in school, but married Dad who was 10 years older than her before her 16th birthday. Wow. And she would never, ever admit to that. I had to figure it out on my fingers. It wasn’t like they had my sister 6 months later either. They were married 9 months before Mona was born. I’ve counted it out. Several times. On my fingers. I wasn’t added to the family mix until past their 8th anniversary, and was always lead to believe I was not planned. But they both seemed happy to have me.

 

Paternal grands, Wanningen’s raising Florence and Floyd, 1931…

 

I wish I remembered more of the family dynamics before we lost Larry in 1958, but I hadn’t yet reached my 8th birthday when he died. The family pictures I have suggest a pretty normal, happy, well adjusted family of 5. After losing Larry, I don’t remember any of us being very happy. Dad seemed to drift away from family things, Mom grew over zealous in her need to protect me from harm and manipulate my life. Mona was either ignored or picked on. Mom seemed secretive. And so alone.


Mona, Mom and Larry. About 1948…


Not once during her life do I remember Mom going out for lunch with a friend. Ever. I know the neighborhood women had coffee together in the mornings, but I think that was before Larry died. I don’t think it was after we moved to 15th street. She didn’t belong to a circle at church, but for many years either entertained folks from church on Sunday nights or accepted invitations from other church families. This seemed to be the extent of their social life. Sunday night coffee hour.

Mom did have some great friendships with co-workers at different places she worked. Valley Manor and G & H Hatchery. She talked about her co-workers, (usually positive) or cute stories about the residents. She was friendly with many of the neighbor’s to a point. But to this young girl’s memory, Mom usually seemed sad, alone and aloof.

I hit the rebellious stage hard and head on about the age of 12. Mom was pretty domineering and manipulative. Dad was gone most nights, involved with church activities like visiting the sick. Mom loved that I had friends, but didn’t like it when I wanted to go anywhere, especially at night. There was only so much quiet a young teen could take. Most of my friends had noise, brothers and sisters, family chaos in their homes. It was just so quiet in our house. All the time.


The house that held many secrets….


I remember the first time I smoked. I was 8 or 9. Staying at some friends from church overnight. My friend, whose name is just beyond the fringe of my memory and I were playing by the farm house. Her dad was conversing with another guy and as a joke one of them offered each of us a puff from his cigar. My no name friend coughed, sputtered and turned a hideous shade of green. I loved the taste and feeling and wanted more. I’m convinced those 2 measly puffs would lead me to a life of smoking that lasted until I hit 39. Twenty-six years since I stopped and I still get cravings once in a while. Without a doubt, if I took one little puff, I’d be hooked like I never quit. Much like a recovering alcoholic falling off the wagon. I never really cared for the taste of beer or booze, but I certainly was addicted to smoking for 3 plus decades (and 30 lbs, guess that works out to 10 a decade, since I stopped).


1961, pretty close to getting sneaky and rebellious…


After those first couple cigar puffs, I don’t really remember how I started smoking in earnest during my spunky rebellious stage. No one to blame, it was all me. I swear I was already hooked on smoking, emotionally at least. Smoking involved several of my friends and a cousin. Helen, Loie, Patsy, Peggy and a boy named Herm. Many times there would be a several day gap between smokes (yes, I counted the days or hours) but I always knew I’d have another one. Sometime. Dad had quit smoking and drinking (not heavy in either category) after Larry died.


Mom w/ Joshua. She loved and kept her orange kitchen for years…

 

In our small, narrow orange kitchen was our gas stove. Two burners on each side, a pilot light with a tiny blue flame in the middle, which burned all the time. When one of the burners was turned on (flirty slut) the pilot light was responsible for sending gas to the burner. Sometimes this worked, other times with older stoves, you needed a match to encourage the burner to ignite. (Does this remind anyone else of the 2 bath tub couple commercial?)


Diane, me, Kay and Faye. Think I was the only smoker, 1966…


One day I was home alone, I wandered in the kitchen and noticed a burned up match near the pilot light on the stove. Not unusual if Mom had turned on a burner but it failed to ignite. A second glance spotted something that looked familiar but should not be on our stove top. A tiny pile of ash. A small round cylinder of ash. Like from a cigarette. Close to the pilot light opening on the black section of our stove. Almost unnoticeable. Odd. The only sporadic, infrequent smoker in our house was me! And I was not yet sneaking smokes in my house (though I would be soon enough). And it certainly wasn’t mine, but not a bad idea. Using the pilot to light your smoke. But I never had cigarettes on or with me. Yet. That task went to other kid’s parents who smoked. If there was a pack lying around, their parents wouldn’t notice when a couple disappeared. This was not the only risky part that accompanied smoking as a young teen in a small town. You could safely bet, no matter where you were or what you were doing, someone was watching. Waiting to rat you out to your parents. And this was decades before cell phones with cameras. Can’t tell you how many times, someone (grown ups) saw me sneaking into the theater (movies were forbidden in our house, sigh) or spotted me puffing on a cig. Small Dutch town living.


1963 with my nephew. Hope I didn’t smell like smoke…


But let me get back to that little pile of ash on our gas stove in our smokeless house (except for me). My interest was piqued and I was determined to figure out why it was there, without asking Mom or Dad. I searched the house. Went through the cupboards and drawers. Nada, zip. But I was a sneaky teen, so I delved deeper. I hit pay dirt in the basement. I never went down there. The steps were treacherous and a hazard to anyone’s health. The only things down there was the fuel oil tank for our furnace and a now abandoned wringer washer since the laundromat opened a half block away. Plus a half carton of L & M cigarettes hidden behind some junk. WTH? I was dumbfounded. Further nosing around would reveal matches in Mom’s house dress, single cigarettes in the bottom of her knitting basket, and almost every jacket and coat pocket. Mom was a closet smoker? And nobody knew? What about Dad? I often wondered why she went down the basement so often? Mom and her secrets.


Mom and Dad about 1961…


I think the answers were all about Dad. Mom had slumped to new lows in grief and depression after Larry’s death. Dad had accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior, and was full of fervor. So full of fervor. But quite condescending. He clearly saw how awful Mom was doing, but forbade her from doing any kind of therapy to talk and work through her grief. He told her if she were a stronger Christian, she wouldn’t be depressed. Ugh. I believe after he easily quit smoking and drinking, he asked Mom to stop smoking, but she wouldn’t or couldn’t. So she smoked alone, in secret. Sad really. More rejection.


Larry, Mom and me, 1951…


I might have told the whole world, bratty teen that I was, but I don’t think so or remember blabbing that little secret of Mom’s. It would be years before we admitted to each other that we both smoked. And smoked in front of each other. I then became her enabler.

For years she was in a tough spot. Since no one in town knew or realized Florence smoked, she couldn’t just zip to Koster’s Market for a carton. Mom’s elaborate cigarette buying techniques still make me feel bad. She would go to such great lengths to purchase a carton without anyone she knew spotting her. No, she was not into disguises, but would drive to Sioux Falls, Sioux City, Rock Rapids, Canton, Le Mars or Worthington. Just to buy a carton of L & M’s without being seen by someone from Rock Valley. She would stop at a huge grocery store in Sioux Falls, grab a cart, wander over to the cartons of cigarettes, grab her brand and high tail it to the checkouts. Eyes darting back and forth, heart pounding, convinced that a member from church was nearby and would see an otherwise empty cart but for that damn carton sitting neatly at the bottom. I told her so often after we both ‘came out’ to each other. Put the carton on the bottom and pile 25 dollars (a cart full back then) worth of groceries on top. No one will ever see the smokes. But she was too nervous to do that. She preferred slinking in, grabbing a carton and high-tailing it out.


This would soon be the room where I’d blow smoke out the window…


I might be mistaken, but as far as I know and remember, only one other person in Rock Valley knew Mom’s secret. Iowa winters are brutal. We had blizzards that lasted for days. Yay, no school. But that put Mom in a tough spot. If she’d run out of cigarettes during a hellacious storm, she was just screwed. Sure Dad could have bought some for her in Sheldon or Canton when he was driving the snowplow, but I think he was unwilling to do that for her. Or she didn’t dare ask him, for fear of being shamed or belittled. I never asked her how this arrangement happened the first time. How in the world she dared to ask someone in town if she could buy some cigarettes from them until the weather cleared? Then she could again drive 50 miles to keep her little secret intact. Mom did what was almost impossible for her personality. She confided and trusted another person to keep her secret. She called our neighbor across the street, asking to buy a pack or 2 to tide her over. Elaine Beumer. I believe Elaine and Paul both smoked. Maybe Elaine told other Rock Valley folks the details of Mom’s little secret, but I doubt that very much. Elaine would not hurt my Mom on purpose. After I was married, living in Sioux City, and heading to Rock Valley, I’d often buy Mom a carton or 2. Yeah, the enabling part. When and if I had money. Geez, sometimes we were so broke I didn’t have the cash, even though Mom always paid me right back. Or I’d get them for her while I was staying at their house. But she’d never let me buy them in town. Never. Somehow she was convinced the clerks would figure out the cigarettes were for her. Florence Gerritson. And why not? My brand was Tareyton…


How well I remember that little white stripe around the filter…



 

 

 

One thought on “The Secret…

  1. I smoked when I was seven. Stole cigs from my father at the urging of my friend \”B\”. Never got caught but these escapades didn't last long, either. Except for smoking a few remnants of my brother's butts ( taken from an ashtray ) at age ten or eleven,I never smoked cigarettes again, thank goodness !

    Like

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