This is the worst time of year for smokers, as they hunch and huddle outside office buildings all over town -- puffing and shivering. Indoor smoking is a distant memory, and in the distance I see my late grandfather, smoking a cigarette in the warmth of his home.
We were always trying to get him to quit whenever he came to visit, but Angelo ("Charlie") Carillo never went anywhere without his trusty Chesterfields in his shirt pocket.
One day, my sister Mary (then in fourth grade) decided to give it a shot. She was skinny and serious, with a head full of short-cropped curls. She marched up to our grandfather as he sat, cigarette in hand, reading the sports pages at our dining room table.
"Grandpa," she began, "my teacher says that every cigarette you smoke takes two minutes off your life."
She was a dramatic kid, and she knew how to sell it. But Grandpa didn't seem shocked by this news. He folded his newspaper, took a drag and courteously exhaled toward the ceiling.
"Two minutes for every cigarette, huh?"
"Tell you what, Mary. Let's figure out how much time I've lost."
"Get a pencil and paper."
She obeyed. Next thing we knew, the two of them were busy calculating how much of Grandpa's life had gone up in smoke.
It was actually a touching sight, his gray head hovering over her curly one as Mary worked the pencil. An outsider looking in on this scene might have taken it for a heartwarming project, a grandfather helping his granddaughter with her homework.
Nobody could have imagined they were trying to figure out how soon the Grim Reaper would come knocking on Grandpa's door.
Mary's figures filled the page. No calculators in those days, boy -- you did arithmetic the hard way. Grandpa had been smoking since he was fifteen. Forty-five years of smoking, times 365 days per year, times twenty cigarettes per day, times two minutes per cigarette... whoa.
At long last, the calculations were complete. Mary drew a long breath before making the announcement. I'm sure she would have liked a drum roll.
"Grandpa," she scolded, "you have lost 456 days of your life to cigarettes."
He shrugged and lit up a fresh one. Another two minutes, gone.
Mary was alarmed by his lack of alarm. "That's one year and ninety-one-days," she added to drive home the point.
Grandpa nodded. "So how long am I gonna live?"
"That year and ninety-one days. What number do we subtract that from?"
"How can you know how much time I lost if you don't know how long I was gonna live in the first place?"
Mary didn't see that coming. All she could do was stare at him.
"And what if I get hit by a bus? Do I still lose that time if I get hit by a bus?"
"Charlie!" my grandmother called from the kitchen. "Stop!"
A sweeter, gentler man than my grandfather never lived, but like many Italian-American grandfathers, he took great pleasure in teasing his grandchildren. What else were they there for?
As it turns out, this was superb training for Mary, who went on to a great career in TV sports. She's had some tough interviews over the past thirty years, but that early one-on-one with our grandfather did a lot to develop her footwork.
Grandpa was waiting for his answer, which, of course, didn't exist on that day. (The eventual answer: he lived into his mid-seventies, smoking and dodging buses all the way.)
He took an especially long drag and let it go through his nostrils, dragon-style.
"Well? What's the deal here, Mary?"
She sighed and brought it all back to where it had begun.
"I'll ask my teacher," she said.
My mother and my grandmother began setting the dinner table. My grandfather mashed his cigarette out in an ashtray and ruffled Mary's curls with his other hand.
"You do that, Mary," he chuckled. "Okay, enough. Let's eat."