Life Sentences: Mama Told Me So

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My sister and I, when we were young and raising children, once figured out something about advice. If it comes from an aunt, an older cousin, a good friend or the good friend’s mother, you might consider its wisdom and, perhaps, take it to heart.

The exact same sentence, if uttered by your mother, is like a fork jabbed deep into your gut. Oof!

We laughed about it then. Of course, we were never going to be meddlesome, handing out old-fashioned ideas. We were modern and had our own fresh ideas.

For example: Watching her teenage daughters release a toxic cloud of aerosol antiperspirant onto the sensitive lymph nodes beneath our arms, Mom would say, “You know, baking soda is very effective as a deodorant, and it’s a fraction of the price.”

“Oh, Mom,” I’d groan, executing an elaborate eye-roll within a cloud of chemicals, “You are such an immigrant!” 

God help me. When I look back at how insolent I was, I deserve everything my high-school daughter spews out.

Mom was right. She often was.

The clever makers of scent and soap caught on to Mom’s advice, and by the time I was in college, every deodorizing product on the market—laundry detergent, toilet bowl cleaner, toothpaste, athlete’s foot and jock itch powder—sported bold lettering: New and improved! Contains baking soda!

So I had to eat crow. 

She was full of effective home remedies.

When we had a scrape, cut, or open wound, we all knew what Mom would say:

“Put peroxide on it.”

It worked. Hydrogen peroxide poured like a waterfall over a stinging cut, works like a mild bleach to cleanse the skin. And it stings like an Africanized bee. 

Infected toe? Soak it in Epsom salt, paint some neon red mercurochrome on and cover with a white sock. Guaranteed to draw out infection.

Pink eye? A small dose of boric acid suspended in water and applied by holding a shot glass under the eye and soaking the whole eyeball. Let the healing begin.

Constipation? Swallow a tablespoon of cod liver oil. And stay near a bathroom. It will fix what ails you. Precipitously.

One remedy for fever we all loved was Dad’s recipe for the Hot Toddy. Whiskey, lemon juice, tea and sugar, taken steaming hot. Wrap yourself in a thick layer of quilts, and go to sleep. Guaranteed to break the highest fever, and you won’t care if it doesn’t. 

In high school, I would suffer monthly cramps so painful, I would come off the bus bent over double. They had pills for that. Sometimes they worked.

When I was hit with cramps so bad at my first job that I had to go home, I lay in bed doubled over, and thought about the Toddy solution. I crept downstairs to the landlady’s bar. She was a Mormon, so I didn’t have hopes for whiskey, but there it was. I slugged back one shot, neat, and crawled back to bed. I swear to you that I felt it burn going down, and pull apart the knotted muscles in my abdomen with the strength of the Incredible Hulk. No wonder the Gaels named it Uisce beathe: “Water of Life.”

Here’s a true whiskey story from our family history. 

When my grandparents were raising four children in Queens, New York, their youngest baby, my Uncle Jimmy, contracted pneumonia. He was dying.

Two neighbor ladies, trained nurses, took turns tending to him for eight hours a day, after their shift at the hospital. The doctor told my grandparents that whiskey might help, and he wrote a prescription. 

Before penicillin, whiskey was the last-ditch curative for some diseases involving bacteria, so my grandfather went down the street to the drugstore. Prohibition laws were in place, and the pharmacist would not accept the script.

Back at home, Jimmy was unconscious. A gray color began to seep up from his feet to his legs. He couldn’t breathe. The family could only watch and pray. Word went out to the neighborhood, and at the last minute, someone gave my grandmother some whiskey.  

It worked. While they watched, the baby’s lungs began to clear, and his body reclaimed its circulation, and his color returned.

“Many, many people died of pneumonia and other diseases before penicillin was invented,” Mom recalled. “Some recovered, but so many died. Whiskey was a last hope for a cure.”

Uncle Jimmy lived on into retirement. And he maintained a lifelong preference for the Water of Life.

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