Chester County’s 2009 Youth Essay Competition - Winning Essay

Jeanne’s Cigarette
YingYing Shang
Fugett Middle School

Jeanne always smoked. Her house smelled perpetually like cigarettes. The short stick in her hand never seemed to disappear; that puff of smoke always surrounded her in a sort of cloudy haze.

Jeanne died last April, of a heart attack. Who exactly was she? My babysitter, my neighbor, but also, and most importantly, my friend. Portland, Maine is scenic, picturesque, but when that chill, New England breeze blows, it seems rather cold and deserted. Jeanne was the opposite – warm and friendly. When my parents looked for a babysitter, she volunteered. She had that Maine lilt to her talk and frequently lauded me as “brilliant” because I had skipped a grade. Her greetings were always curt, and she never placed much on formalities.

A glass of milk, an apple, a pear. Some sign that the immense world out there would accept me. Those were the things Jeanne provided. That unmovable faith in me. As a rather ostracized fourth grader without many friends, Jeanne gave me the reassurance that every kid needs. She had a large family, and quickly pulled me into it. For my ninth birthday, she baked a cake, and invited her granddaughter who was my age. Those little things that show qualities like kindness, compassion, concern.

Even when I moved to Pennsylvania, she was one of the few people that still kept in contact with me. She still sent presents every holiday, every birthday. I’ve moved so many places, and it was such a rarity to find someone who actually cared about me no matter where I was. Every Christmas, that big box that always came represented someone out there who genuinely cared.
A heart attack was what killed her. More specifically, smoking is what killed her. Even when talking to someone, even when holding a lengthy conversation, she never snuffed out the cigarette. Packs and packs of cigarettes over time had harmed her health, and that showed in her persistent cough. After a couple of months of staying at her house everyday after school, I picked it up too. Only in retrospect did I realize what I was doing: secondhand smoking. I had asthma and bronchitis for two years because of that. If that is what it did to me, three hours a day, for five days a week, then what did it do to her?

She wasn’t even that old – in her early sixties. If it hadn’t been for her nasty habit, who knows how many years it would have added to her life?

Jeanne was my friend. An old friend. A real friend. But when I close my eyes and envision her once more, here’s how I see her:

Sitting at her dining room table, with the shades pulled down halfway. Eyes half closed. On the table is a pack of cigarettes. In her hand is that short stick, with that wisp of smoke trailing off into the air.

Jeanne died last April. Smoking.