The onset of a deep chest cold recently pushed me to wander the aisles of rural America’s drug store, Dollar General, for any cure that might halt the hacking. Three days and three placebos later, my hack weakened to a wheeze. Time, and the lovely Catherine’s chicken soup, did the trick.
Had I been on the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth, however, my mother would have lathered my chest and throat with Vicks VapoRub and safety-pinned a giant, itchy wool sock around my neck. “Leave it on,” she’d have commanded, “or else you’ll get pneumonia!”
Experience proved that warning wasn’t exactly true. I always took the sock off after getting on the school bus and I never once caught pneumonia. I would put it back on, however, just before returning home that afternoon.
Hey, I might have been sick, but I wasn’t foolish.
Mom had other cures, too. Her usual, go-to cure-all featured a slice of raw bacon — the fattier the better — soaked in turpentine. That mixture was her medicine for everything from cuts and boils to puncture wounds and skin rashes. As a result, my siblings and I likely wore more bacon during childhood than we ate.
One time, after I had accidentally (of course) put a pitchfork tine into the top of my brother David’s foot while leveling silage, my mother covered the wound with a slice of turpentine-dripping bacon, wax paper, and gauze.
Tetanus shot? Doctor visit? Why go to the trouble if you already had turpentine, bacon, wax paper, and gauze?
It’s likely Mom received her pharmacological training from her mother, Lottie, who practiced the home art of cure-alls on herself. Unlike Mom, though, most of Grandma’s self-medication featured pint jars of horrible smelling vegetables sliced and soaking in aged, 90-proof whiskey.
My father played a unwitting role in Grandma’s medicines: He supplied the booze despite never volunteering it.
Because Grandma didn’t drink — at least nothing non-medicinal — she would bring her pints of disgusting vegetables to our house and help herself to Dad’s modest supply of what he called “cheer.” He would only discover the raid when some farm complication — usually machinery carnage rendered by his Uncle Honey — found him in need of being “cheered.”
Each time, however, Dad just mumbled about how his teetotaler mother-in-law went through so much “medicine” so fast.
The one time he actually confronted the family’s sneaky quack was after she drained nearly half of a fifth of Wild Turkey that had been a Christmas present from his father. (It was a gentle but firm rebuke; he pointed her to a bottle of something less precious.)
Grandma also brewed odd-sounding teas as cures to gastrointestinal ailments people rarely talked about in public. You know, those ailments. One time, David and I made her some “tea” out of baled alfalfa without telling her it was cow feed. Grandma ruined our joke by taking a sip and announcing it “Simply delicious.” Good grief.
When she wasn’t self-medicating with vegetable-infused alcohol, Grandma often gave us a concoction she called — I think this is right — “alpenkrauter.” My brothers and I guessed the German word meant “poison for noisy grandchildren.”
All we knew about it was that it was store-bought, tasted like tar, and she seemed to never be without it. Alpenkrauter, she would remind us, “is a cure for whatever ails you, even when that something is as bad as a bad attitude.”
As such, Dr. Grandma often prescribed it for me and my siblings. And, on a rare occasion, we would get a teaspoon of her veggie-corn mash concoction, too.
For that to happen, however, we usually had to be wearing bacon, smell like a paint store and have a wool sock choking our gizzards.