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The Smell of Smoke

By February 17, 2017 One Comment


The other day I had a moment. Maybe it was the light, maybe it was the smell of melting snow, whatever it was it brought me back to my grandma’s house. The moment came and went quickly, but it was enough to remind me of a place I haven’t seen in years. I took for granted the times I was able to visit. While you’re there you never stop to think, maybe this will be the last time I step foot in this place. You just go about living your life and then one day a familiar house with all of its creaks, smells, and strange places is gone—you never go back. This semester I asked students to read Augustine’s Confessions. We talked about memory, how we narrate our lives, how God comes to us in the midst of our narrated time. We talked about our forgotten memories—the things we forgot we had forgotten until something sparked its return. Some of these forgotten memories can be overwhelming, things you hadn’t thought of for some time, until it all comes flooding back. This was the moment I had the other night. Sitting in a meeting at church, I noticed the fluorescent lights and for some reason I thought of my grandma’s basement. What a strange thing, I thought to myself. A fluorescent light reminding me that grandma was gone.

Nothing lights up my memory more than cigarette smoke. Strange, I know, but everyone in my family smoked back in the day. Inside even! Ash trays on the kitchen table, aunts sitting there talking about stuff I didn’t care about, long ash hanging from the cigarettes propped in their hand. I can still see them sitting there, what seemed like every Friday night, us cousins would play outside and the grownups would “sit and visit”. Sometimes they would make their way to the driveway in these cheap nylon lawn chairs if it was nice out. Smoke billowing, loud voices pontificating, sometimes laughing, sometimes yelling, but usually smoking. What’s funny is I never smoked as a teenager. I wanted nothing to do with it. At school I was told that smoking is bad, maybe even sinful, so I would hide my dad’s cigarettes until he let me know it wasn’t funny anymore. Now? I like to puff on cigars, usually cheap ones, but every once in a while I’ll get a more expensive one. I stand around with my friends outside the local coffee shop talking and puffing. The main reason I do it is I enjoy the company—but every now and again the smoke reminds me of things I forgot I had forgotten. It makes me wonder what my kids will remember. What smells will they associate with me? When our house is occupied by strangers, what will trigger their memories? What will they have forgotten?

This morning I thank God for the smell of smoke, for the priceless moments of conversation, and for all of the things I have yet to remember.

Jason Lief

Jason Lief teaches Practical Theology at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He served as editor of Reformed Journal for many years and was one of the original bloggers on the RJ blog. You can find more of his writing at

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