Doctor Mum

The Author

At Twelve Years Old

From my earliest childhood, I remember being subjected to all sorts of "home remedies" for a variety of illnesses. With such a large family, colds and other communicable ailments were rampant and the attempts at a cure were often bizarre. Probably just about every child has at one time or another been slathered as the first line of defense, with Vicks Vaporub! I have been coated in the stuff from eyes to groin, had it shoved up my nose and forced to eat it by the teaspoonful. To this day, the odor of menthol makes me a bit nauseous. Hydrogen Peroxide was also available as a first treatment for sore throat. It was impossible to get the young kids to gargle the stuff, and any attempt was met with foaming and gagging and vomiting. My dad would usually wrap a wad of cotton around the end of a pencil, to dob throats with the peroxide. I was told that on many occasions, the cotton ball ended up in the stomach.

Severe chest congestion was a problem that Mum attacked aggressively, and I believe with some glee! A thick paste was made from flour and water, and smeared on 1/2 of a one by two foot square of muslin. Cayenne pepper was liberally applied to the paste and the other half of the cloth was folded over. This plaster was laid on the chest pepper side out, and secured with a tight undershirt. If the plaster was hard by the next morning, the night sweats had ended and the cure was underway. A plaster made from dry mustard was nearly as effective.
My oldest sister Grace became the "second mother" in our large family to a few of us younger ones. As a baby, little "Peter Lamb" gave poor Grace a mighty rough time of it, I am told. One of my favorite middle-of-the-night activities according to my sisters, was to play plasterer with the contents of my diaper. Grace tried everything to prevent this, from tightly pinning the diaper to my legs to bathing me in ice cold water in the middle of the night. My screams stopped that one in a hurry. One time when I was older, Grace was assigned to pepper-plaster my chest. She swore that she "accidentally" put the pepper side against my chest, blistering my skin in several places. She was a sweet lady, and I believed her. Others were more skeptical.

Back in the days when Coca Cola contained traces of cocaine, mothers had legal access to an over-the counter opiate by the name of Paregoric. It was magical in its ability to soothe colic and other stomach ailments and as mothers soon discovered, Paregoric served another useful purpose. A teaspoonful at bedtime guaranteed mom a good night's rest. I remember that we kept some in our home, and it was used for the former. As for the latter I'm not certain, but maybe desperate times called for desperate measures! A tablespoon or two of whiskey with sugar could stop a croupy cough long enough for sleep to take over. At least it was safer than another practice that was rumored, where a restless child would be placed by the open door of an unlit oven, to be "lulled" into drousiness by the natural gas. Watch those "natural" labels on your drugstore counter!

Our vegetable garden provided many of our first-aid needs at that time. If you were afflicted with a stye, a poultice made from ground raw potato was applied to the eye and secured in place overnight. By morning, the stye was usually gone. During the Winter months, potent homemade horseradish during meals supposedly scared off many colds. Most infections of the skin were treated by a poultice of boiled peach leaves, after first bathing the area with the very hot peach consomme. (A memorable experience!) Up our street a ways, a boyhood friend named Henry Ranft was subjected to a much less painful, but ultimately more embarrassing cure for his athlete's feet. Henry would be dispatched to a nearby field to bring home a bucket containing the remains of a freshly-deposited cow patty! I have to admit that I was among his "friends" who would take merciless note of his green-stained feet. It wasn't enough that nearly every evening at suppertime, poor Henry's mom would summon him home in exactly the same manner. She was a skinny lady with a surprisingly loud voice that echoed across the valley
"Henry! Heeeeenreee! I'LL BRAIN YOU BOY!"

Most ailments that didn't manifest the usual symptoms, were usually treated using the same two methods. Mum was a firm believer that a whistle-clean alimentary canal was the most expeditious waterway to healthy living. If a family member or even a neighbor contracted anything from a bad cold to Scarlet Fever, my mother would spring into action. Her arsenal of medical weapons included a variety of laxatives, but first and foremost, she was a great fan of soapy-water enemas and the old standby Castor Oil! I think she bought the stuff by the quart, along with each gallon of Vick's Salve. Whenever mum was spotted cutting oranges into quarters, it wasn't for juice. We would each be given a slice of orange to wash the taste of Castor Oil from our mouths, following the dreaded spoonful. I was told that around 1925, six of the kids were dosed at one time. Now castor oil has an almost immediate effect on the bowel, and 58 Mullooly Street had only one bathroom! Buckets were rounded up for the girls, and the boys "took to nature". That scenario was never repeated.
When I was twelve I suffered from a persistent very high fever, later diagnosed as a form of Poliomyelitis. There were no lasting effects to me, but my mum had a permanent change to her medical approach. At first she treated me with the usual tablespoon of castor oil, but finally had to summon Doc Heath. From my bedroom, I vividly remember hearing the old doctor admonishing my mother in the dining room downstairs: "MRS. THEOBALD!" he shouted,
Not very long after that incident, my sister Theresa and I were rummaging around in the basement looking for unexploded bottles of birch beer. (We usually lost about half of our homemade birch beer to over-pressure from fermentation.) We came across several clear bottles whose contents tasted like tart ginger ale. We each drank a full bottle of Citrate of Magnesia, and for the next three days never wondered far from a toilet.

I can't argue with their success, but the Theobald children have forgone most of their parent's home remedies.

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