Up in Smoke


When I was in first grade, my teacher organized a thing called Star of the Week, where each student took a turn being featured. Details of the week elude me all these years later, but a few things remain: Being first in the lunch line, making a poster-sized collage representing my life to date (mine was in the shape of a trolley, inspired by Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood), and a presentation to the class about my family.

That last part was kind of delicate, at the time.

The whole reason I was at that school—in that city, even—was that, a year prior, my father had been murdered in a terrorist attack. Days before I started first grade, we moved a thousand miles to my mother’s hometown, where my grandparents could lend a hand with my sister and me. In my grandfather’s case, that singular hand was quite somewhat literal.

In his younger days, my grandfather was a both a Southern gentleman and a man’s man. He had played football in high school—and was later inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame—took a hiatus from his studies at the Virginia Military Institute to serve in the waning days of World War II, and then, after completing school, returned home to co-found a tobacco distribution business with his father. As they were both named Leon, Sr. and Jr., they named the company accordingly: the Leon and Leon Cigar Company.

By the time I knew him, the Southern gentlemanly aspects remained. He gave “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Dixie” equal treatment, and frequently commanded me to hold doors for random women. But the stereotypical manliness was long gone, replaced by a frailty unbecoming of a frame that still retained some semblance of burliness.

Tobacco had made him a fortune. Tobacco had cost him more.

A year or two before I was born, some time in the early 1980s, when he was in his mid-50s, my grandfather had his annual physical, where he was told that, aside from that whole smoking thing, he was in perfect shape. Bolstered by this bill of health, he drove 45 minutes to the far-flung suburbs, where his country club was located. As he attempted to tee off for the first hole of a round of golf, he fell over, clutching his chest, a heart attack ravaging him. A week later, while he was in the hospital, a stroke ravaged his brain, destroying much of the motor function on the right side of his body.

As I understand it, my grandfather sold his share of the company, which had merged with another some time prior, to his partner to help pay medical bills. Months of physical therapy ensued, as he re-learned how to walk and talk, plus how to do all sorts of basic tasks like tying shoes with his left, previously non-dominant, hand. In my memory, his cane was never out of sight, and his signature was never more than a scribble. We played checkers instead of football, and fetching Grandpa his pills after dinner was a game of its own. I liked the blue ones the most.

When my turn as Star of the Week rolled around, I didn’t have a father to come in and talk about his job, so my grandfather came instead, limping into the classroom and talking about his work. At the time, this seemed like a big deal, him taking a day off for me, but as I grew older, I got the impression that his work was trivial, that he was kept on at work not because of his capability, but his status. Maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe I’m biased after all the cognitive difficulties I witnessed—he had a habit of running through all the male names in the family before getting mine right, for example. That company, though—all that tobacco work he did before the tobacco caught up with him—that was something.

Remember how I said he was inducted into his high school’s Hall of Fame? He was inducted into the Tobacco Industry Hall of Fame, too.

My grandfather died in 2005, but he was out of my life sooner than that. By 1999, it was clear that I was never going to be who he wanted me to be, and that the constant pressure to try was too much. I stopped speaking to him that summer, and to this day, I don’t regret it. With the benefit of hindsight, I now wonder how much of the way he treated me was a result of him not liking who he became after the stroke. A couple years ago, my uncle, the youngest in the family, who was in college when the stroke struck, speculated that my grandmother might have left my grandfather had it not been for his health. Whether it’s true or not, theirs wasn’t the happiest house to have regular Friday dinners in.

I thought about him earlier tonight, after watching the Last Week Tonight piece where John Oliver took on the tobacco industry. I was thinking about that day in first grade, when my 62-year-old grandfather with the cane and the limp and the weird, large lump on his thumb—which was supposedly the result of a skin graft to cover his heart surgery scar—stood in front of the class and told them about his job in the tobacco industry. I’d like to think that today, that presence wouldn’t have been about me, and instead, would have been about why we should never do what he had done.

I’ve never smoked. It’s a personal choice, and I try not to be preachy about it to my friends who do. I don’t talk about my grandfather much, and usually, I don’t think about him much, either.

Tonight, after watching that segment, I typed my grandfather’s name into Google. Less than ten years after his demise, try as I might, I couldn’t find his obituary. The top hit, on the other hand, was stunning: A site called The Corporate Corruption of Science, featuring links to his share of 6,000,000 tobacco industry documents released after a settlement with the Clinton administration.

Maybe it’s fitting, given all the lives ruined by the tobacco he sold. In life, tobacco robbed him of his vitality. In death, his legacy.

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