Joyce Whitis

One day this week, I woke up with the sniffles. By bedtime, my body was on fire, my head was splitting open, my throat hurt to swallow and my nose… well, you get the picture. I waited until morning to call my doctor, dressed, went to the clinic, got a shot in the hip (“little stick,” the nurse said!) and left with a prescription to fill at the drugstore. That’s just about the routine I expected nowadays but on the drive back to my house, I thought about how Mama would have handled a bad cold when I was growing up in the ‘30s.

First of all, Mama was a great believer in Vicks Salve. I believe she thought it could cure cancer and when I began to show symptoms of a bad cold, she hauled out the big blue jar, slathered a generous layer on my bare chest, covered it with a piece of warm flannel and put me to bed. Then she’d have me stuff more Vicks up my nose. Sometimes she’d drag me out of bed, have me stand in front of the cook stove, throw a towel over my head and instruct me to stand over a boiling pot of water in which she had placed a tablespoon of Vicks. Breathing the hot fumes was supposed to “open up my head.”

As a result of the Vicks‚ treatment, I grew up absolutely despising the smell of the stuff and to tell the truth, never thought anything that you could do would make you get over a cold any quicker. Seemed to me you just had to wear it out. And in spite of all the advances of modern medicine, research has never been able to prevent nor cure the common cold. The best thing to do is just stay away from folks but that’s hard to do, especially with runny-nosed little kids. Kids’ colds are at least 10 times worse when adults catch them than colds picked up from people our own age. Somehow little kids carry the absolute worst germs and they are very generous about giving them to loving grandparents and huggable aunts and uncles.

As much as I hated the smell of Vicks, it kept following me. When Tom and I married, I found out that his mother had practiced the same medicine that my mother had. The only difference was that he still stuck to his upbringing whereas I had shed mine, so during our 55 years together, once the cold season came upon us, he would advise me to pick up a jar of Vicks the next time I was at the drug store.

Another one of my mother’s home remedies was shoving a teaspoon full of sugar and coal oil in my mouth when she heard a cough coming out of it. Oh Lord, that was worse than the smell of Vicks. There I’d be in the middle of the night when a racking cough could not be held back in spite of the consequences. I’d cough and then hoping that she hadn’t heard me in the next room, bury my face in the feather pillow on my bed and try to smother the noise from a cough that came from deep in my throat. Silently I’d pray to a merciful God not to let my mother hear me cough and come with that dreaded spoonful of coal oil and sugar. Still, I knew that Mama could always hear any little sound and that it was just a matter of time before I would see the reflection of the lighted lamp in the kitchen on my bedroom wall. I knew, oh yes, I knew what she was doing in there. She was mixing a little coal oil with a spoonful of sugar to cut the taste and soon she would be standing at my bed saying pleasantly, “Open your mouth, Joyce.”

I might resist for a few seconds, telling her that I wouldn’t cough anymore, that there were no more coughs inside of me but always there would be another rattling cough from my throat and then I just might as well set up in bed and take my medicine.

“There, now, that’s better,” she’d say, as she pushed the spoon between my lips. Then smiling sweetly, she’d lean over the bed to give me a kiss on the forehead.

“Go to sleep. You won’t cough anymore tonight.”

And the thing about that was she was always right! That spoonful of horrible stuff always did the trick. I knew that it would, from past experience but still every time I resisted as long as I could.

In those days, mothers were also the doctors in the family and their home remedies were practiced, honed and handed down to their daughters who would one day, it was expected, become mothers themselves with families to care for. I don’t remember ever seeing a doctor during the first 10 years of my life. Mother treated my cuts and scraps with Lysol or rubbing alcohol or if they were bad enough to lay open the skin, you guessed it, coal oil from the barrel behind the house. I never had a tetanus shot even when I jumped off the barn roof and took most of the hide off my left hand when it got caught on a ragged piece of tin. A trip to the coal oil barrel took care of that although the long white scars on my palm remain today.

I guess I was just lucky.