If you grew up in a smoking household back in the 1950s, you probably experimented with cigarettes on the sly.   I know I did, in elementary school.

Back then my parents were both Marlboro smokers. I remember a lot about those days. I remember the Marlboro cartons (usually two of them) sitting on a shelf in the kitchen, just to the left of the refrigerator.  I remember the ads featuring the jingle: filter, flavor, flip top box.

Marlboro pack

I remember the Winston crush-proof box.

Winston pack


I remember the LS/MFT ads during the Seventh Inning Stretch of Brooklyn Dodgers ballgames. 

And I especially remember the day when my mother quit.

Tony Stein and I were in fifth grade at PS 28 in Yonkers, NY. We were on the safety patrol which involved standing on the access road to the elementary school for about a half hour before and after school. In the Spring I ‘liberated’ a flip top box from our kitchen and Tony provided the matches. Before school, we would stand behind the car parked in J. Quinton Miller’s driveway on Manor Drive. where we hunkered down, lit a cigarette, and passed it back and forth. 

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One fateful afternoon in Mrs. Sommantico’s 5th grade class, she was walking up and down the rows while we worked quietly on a writing assignment. She paused next to me, frowned, and slowly pulled the red and white flip-top Marlboro pack out of my shirt-front pocket. “What’s this?” she asked, too quietly for comfort. I had no answer, and she broke the painful silence with: “Do your parents know you smoke?”  Again I was silent. “Let’s find out,” she said and returned to her desk.

She put the cigarette pack in a large envelope along with a hand written note, sealed it, and gave it to me. “Don’t come back to school until your parents have signed the note I wrote.”

I don’t remember much of the rest of that afternoon or my walk home. I gave the envelop to my mother and told her only that there was a note from Mrs Sommantico and that she needed to sign it for me. She opened the envelop, pulled out the cigarettes, and after a considerable pause, she read it aloud to me: 

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“Dear Mrs. Elias,

Peter had these in his pocket at school today. I told him not to return to school until you had signed this note.


Mrs. Sommantico”


My mother said, “Come with me.” She took a brown Daitch-Shopwell shopping bag and we went around the house collecting all the cigarettes and ashtrays, ALL of which went into the trash. Then she said down at the desk and wrote the following on back of Mrs.. Sommantico’s note:


“Dear Mrs. Sommantico.

Thank you for your note. Peter and I have just thrown away all the ash trays and cigarettes in the house. I trust you will not see him with cigarettes again..


Nina D. Elias, MD”


I returned the note to Mrs. Sommantico the next day. She read it, nodded, and told me I could sit down. She never mentioned it again, but two decades later when I stopped by the school and visited with her, she remembered my name and the episode, and asked if I had grown up to be a smoker. She seemed pleased when I told her I was a confirmed never-smoker.

And my mother went from being a two-pack/day smoker to a non-smoker. Years later, when I was old enough to know how hard it was for smokers to quit, I asked her about it. She said simply: “I couldn’t tell you not to smoke while we were smoking.”  

(My father never smoked cigarettes in the house after that. He switched to a pipe - Mixture 79 - which he smoked for many years, until he had a biopsy of suspicious lesion on his tongue. The biopsy was negative for cancer, but showed pre-cancerous changes, and he quit, as well.)


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