Memoir: Snuff and Hand-Rolled Cigarettes

The smell stays with you. I mean, we don’t forget smells. When we would visit my great-grandparents, Oscar and Lorena Stuckey, we’d first be greeted by chickens, and their distinctive smell, milling about in the yard. As we approached the kitchen by way of the porch, and everyone went in through the kitchen door, we’d meet the mingling aromas of various boiled and fried foods, a hint of natural gas, and maybe a whiff of loose tobacco and fresh snuff. Describing that particular smell is impossible, I think. If you know what I’m talking about, the memory will just about knock you over. If you don’t know, I’m sorry to leave you perplexed.

Oscar rolled cigarettes between his thumb and forefinger with alacrity. The saw mill took the other three fingers from his right hand decades earlier, and you’d almost think those extra digits had been extraneous appendages. Like they would have gotten in his way, regardless. I made the mistake of getting him a cigarette rolling machine one year, which he accepted graciously and put away somewhere never to be seen again. Besides being a self-reliant Texan who could roll his own cigarettes, thank you, he wasn’t a fan of solving problems through technology, anyway. Maybe it seemed unmanly to him.

And he was manly. He was well over six feet tall and spoke in a resonate basso profundo that always drew attention. His voice had the natural timbre actors try to develop for their overly reverent portrayals of history’s “great men.”

Before he died, someone in the family had the foresight to make a recording of him speaking, but I don’t know whether the tape is still around. I do remember the topic of the conversation, though. Born in 1889, Oscar was too young to have known people while they were living in slavery, but he was old enough to have met the children of slaves.

On the tape, he was speaking to a woman about his age who was directly descended from slaves in Texas. They discussed the ongoing evolution of race relations in Texas over the years. Livingston, Texas, is not a place known for racial tolerance, but it is a place where black and white people have to live side by side. I wish I could revisit the insights the two of them shared that day. I can say they were friendly, and each seemed to enjoy reminiscing.

Lorena didn’t smoke cigarettes that I ever saw, but she didn’t mind taking a dip of snuff from time to time. I have a vivid memory of her sitting in a comfortable chair with a dip of snuff in her lip and the tiniest dribble of snuff-infused saliva working slowly down her chin. I don’t think I ever saw her wearing anything but a dress, usually with an apron over it. She had simple tastes.

Her son, Oscar, Jr., died at the age of 18 in Woodville, Texas, and she never stopped talking about him. I don’t mean she talked about him constantly; it’s just that he would come up from time to time all the way to the end of her life. I remember her well in her old age telling me she had spoken with Jesus, and Jesus had assured her that Junior was doing just fine and looking forward to seeing her when she joined him in Heaven. This was one of the few windows I had, as a child, into the suffering of an adult and the adult efforts to find comfort from religion.

As children, we never left the house without her giving us a dime. As we got older, inflation had no impact on the size of the gift, and she continued giving dimes to us long after it was really appropriate, but it was a quiet way of saying, “I love you,” and every dime was much appreciated. We all must find quiet way to say, “I love you.”

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