© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Essay: Sen-Sens and Cigarettes

Ioan Sameli

Our view of our parents evolves as we get older - from believing they’re omnipotent to understanding they aren’t, and that they are fallible. Lake Effect essayist, Cari Taylor-Carlson, was an adolescent when a pack of cigarettes taught her a vital lesson about her mother.

Kids are supposed to believe everything their moms tell them. Right? Moms are supposed to always tell the truth. Right? That’s the line I believed when I was 11 and Mom said, “If you smoke even one cigarette, you will stunt your growth.” She said a lot more than that, but all I heard was “stunt your growth.” She lectured, pontificated about many subjects which related to behaving myself. Most of the time, like any kid, I turned deaf when she started one of her monologues.

But that word “stunt” crept into my brain as if I would be 4’9’, the 7th grade girl in brown and white saddle oxford shoes who spoke when no one listened, forever overlooked, surrounded by perfect popular girls.

Mom’s threat challenged me, a troublemaker who liked to push the boundaries of proper behavior. That’s why my friend Claudia and I stole a pack of Pall Malls, from my parent’s kitchen cupboard. Don’t tell me not to smoke. That’s an invitation to bring on the cigarettes.

This was the 50s. Everyone smoked. We were curious, liked the smell. When my mom smoked, she put on her happy face, especially when she took a deep breath and let a long swirl out her nose. My dad blew smoke rings, huge smoke rings, big enough for me to put my fist through. I decided if he could do it, so could I.

We hocked the cigarettes and headed for the woods behind my house where we knew no one would look for us. We used half a package of matches on the first cigarette, the more we tried, the more it fizzled, no matter how hard we sucked on the end. After Claudia finally got one lit, we smoked it down to the part where we were chewing tobacco. What was left was soggy, wet from our lips curled around the butt end.

When we finished, we buried the butt underneath some berry bushes. I got the giggles. That’s when Claudia said “Yuk. Your breath smells disgusting, like rotten eggs and wet tobacco. We can’t go home like this. Our parents will know.”

“Then let’s steal something at the drug store,” I said. “Let’s get something to make our breath smell better.”

We walked to Rexalls on Twelve-Mile Road, two blocks from my house, where I slipped some Sen-Sens in to my pocket. Big letters on the outside of the box read “Breath Freshener.” Problem solved.

The Sen-Sens came in a small cardboard container, like a kitchen match box with an inside compartment which slid out like a dresser drawer. It had a small hole on the bottom. When we shook it, little square things fell into our hands. We hid behind the magazine rack and forced ourselves to chew all the horrid so called breath fresheners, pellets which tasted like licorice, black jelly beans, black gum drops, Twizzlers, only worse, stronger, disgusting.

While we laughed and choked on the Sen-Sens, we failed to note the man behind the counter watching us. As I tossed the empty box in the wastebasket I heard a loud voice, “Wait, just a minute.”

He wrote down our names, addresses, and phone numbers, fished the box out of the trash and said, “Take this home; show it to your parents; tell them what you did.”

Not only did I have to return to the drugstore with an apology, pay for the stupid little Sen-Sens with my entire allowance from the last month, I also got the spanking of my life. I had a purple butt from the spatula Mom used on me in her fury when she found out her child was a thief.

My bruised butt healed in a week. I secretly recorded my height on my bedroom wall and checked every day to see if I was growing. After two years and three inches, I stopped checking and decided Mom had lied. She gets high grades for creativity because even at 11, she suspected I fantasized myself someday tall, willowy, sexy.

I’m not sure the punishment matched the crime, or which was worse, the stolen cigarette I smoked, or the Sen Sen theft.

What I do know is this. Sometimes Moms are allowed to tell their children things which drop into the grey area of half-truths, which then land in the category of “This is for your own good.” My mom’s bluff, not fully understood until I had my own children, took on a life of its own as evidenced by my belief in the stunted growth theory.

Some part of Mom’s empty threat worked, because all my high school friends smoked. I refused to try another cigarette until I was eighteen, certain I had reached my full adult height, 5’5”.

Cari Taylor-Carlson travels the world with a backpack and a tent. She taught environmental education at Schlitz Audubon and the Boerner Botanical Gardens, founded the Milwaukee Walking and Eating Society and wrote Milwaukee Walks, The Food Lover's Guide To Milwaukee and Best Cheap Eats. She continues to write The Dish for M Magazine and guide hiking trips with her business Venture West.