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
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,
"DO YOU KNOW WHAT CASTOR OIL IS GOOD FOR?" (brief pause)
"ONLY ONE THING! AIRPLANE MOTORS!"
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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