Millennia ago cave mothers dispensed the best health care available at the time. When a kid stumbled into the family cave coughing, sneezing, and feverish, a Flintstone mom, undoubtedly, removed his soggy deerskin clothing and hung the pieces over the open fire to dry. She lovingly poured him a bowl of warm turtle soup, slaked the little fellow with a goose fat liniment, and rolled him snugly in his bearskin blanket. Nature did the rest.
Since then each generation has passed on its home remedies and health tips, most of which have given way to modern medicine. Before inoculations or antibiotics were available, families had to take disease control into their own hands. Fortunately, one home remedy used during the early part of the twentieth century has been put to rest.
My mother told me of being required to wear an asphidity bag around her neck each winter to ward off sickness. The small, cloth sack was stuffed with camphor, mentholatum, eucalyptus, and assorted herbs. Children were warned not to open the bag because it would release the power. The power, of course, was in the fumes, which could evacuate a one-room schoolhouse if emitted into the air. According to my mother, the potent little pouch kept germs at bay largely because no one wanted to get near you.
If a bronchitis germ found its way passed your asphidity shield, a mustard plaster made of ground mustard seeds, spread on a cloth, and applied to the chest was a second line of defense. Goose fat smeared on brown paper made a dandy chest poultice, too, and, when melted, a spoonful would soothe a sore throat and cleanse the innards.
Also essential to the medicine cabinet, as well as the barn, was a container of bear grease. The oily substance salved wounds, cuts, and arthritis, waterproofed boots, lubricated wagon axles, and fostered hair growth. What bear grease couldn’t cure was left to castor oil, aspirin, or sassafras tea.
Not Too Modern Medicine
Some of my grandfather’s health habits would not even be considered hygienic today. He wore his long-johns all week; worked in ‘em, slept in ‘em. It was thought unwise to disrobe in a drafty house any more than necessary, so the event was reserved for his Saturday night bath.
By the time I came along, medicine had made significant advances. We were beginning to think more about proactive treatment. Still, only a small pox vaccination was required for school enrollment. There was no protection for the usual childhood diseases until the whooping cough vaccine became readily available in the thirties.
My mother was skeptical of this newfangled remedy, so I didn’t get the inoculation. But, at age five, I did get whooping cough and nearly died, missed a half year of school, and was left with an enlarged heart. We learned the hard way to accept modern medicine. My mother was skeptical of this newfangled remedy, so I didn’t get the inoculation. But, at age five, I did get whooping cough and nearly died, missed a half year of school, and was left with an enlarged heart. We learned the hard way to accept modern medicine.
Still old remedies persisted. When I developed a number of warts on my knees and fingers, I turned to my grandmother for advice. Her cure: stump water—the rainwater that collects in the hollow of a rotted tree. Readers of Tom Sawyer may remember that this was also his remedy for wartiness, which was less exotic than Huck Finn’s cure: flinging a dead cat in a graveyard at midnight.
Being a city dweller at the time, there were no dead trees on our block, no cemeteries, or dead cats available, so I had to settle for my grandmother’s alternative remedy. It was more complicated, because of the math component involved in the treatment. First, you counted your warts and then cut a potato into as many pieces as you had warts. Next, you touched each wart the number of times you had warts; placed the potato pieces in a deep hole, covered it with dirt, and never returned to that spot again. It sounded like black magic, but I was desperate. I did exactly what she said and within six months my warts had disappeared.
Years later when I told my family physician what I had done, he replied in all seriousness, “I believe you. I’ve heard many such stories.” (I might mention that he was the same doctor, who later diagnosed a cyst on my daughter’s wrist as a ganglion. The cure? “Whack it with a Bible,” he said. She did and it’s gone.)
Most people have no recollection of the day when doctors made house calls. Except in old western movies, this generation will never see a kindly, bespectacled physician sitting by a bedside, opening his black bag to fetch a tongue depressor to check a swollen throat.
My whooping cough had been diagnosed one winter during a house call by our family doctor, a Scotsman by the name of Angus Magruder MacDonald. His soothing baritone voice was healing in itself. My mother asked how long my disease would last.
In words that sounded almost poetic, the old physician pointed out the window, and replied, “She will be well when the leaves on the oak tree are the size of a squirrel’s ear.” What a beautiful way to say it was going to be a tough haul and he was right. His words must have had some long-term, remedial effect, because each spring I feel better when I see the tree leaves waving their little “green ears” outside my bedroom window.
Before Modern Medicine
Even though I live in the world of modern medicine, the warnings of my youth plague me more often than I would like: don’t sit in a draft; never sleep without a covering; don’t lie or sit on the cold ground; don’t drink out of another person’s glass; don’t get your feet wet and, if you do, remove your socks as soon as possible. Bathing too often or sitting in the sun too long will dry out your skin and leave you a wrinkled old woman; hot tea cures just about anything physical or emotional; a teaspoon of whiskey mixed with sugar is good for a cold—or, at least, makes the suffering more tolerable; and Vicks salve, the precursor of penicillin, works wonders when inhaled, smeared on your throat—inside or out—or rubbed on your chest.
New Health Habits
Despite my fondness in recalling these quaint health rules, I have no intention of passing them on to my family with the same degree of importance they once had for me. Though I still find one old saying both true and funny: “Treat a cold and it lasts seven days; leave it alone and it’s gone in a week.”
If I were to make some suggestion to my grandchildren, I would tell them to do their best to hold on until 2024. That’s when medical clairvoyants say we will have nanobots running through our bodies finding faulty cells, turning them off before they can do harm, and fixing everything from cancer to the common cold.
But in the meanwhile we have to last that long and that will require some good health habits. So I tell my kids and grand kids to eat more organic foods, take vitamins, and watch their cholesterol; wear sun screen; get a pap smear or prostate check, have regular heart, colon, breast, eye, and dental exams; eat more fish and whole grains; exercise daily; and avoid tobacco and drugs. I doubt if my grandparents ever gave that advice. Back then, the importance of most of those things was unknown or tests unavailable.
With sensible habits and the help of a few nanobots, my grandchildren could live to be a hundred years old—or more. I keep telling Harper that it’s important to set big goals. My goal is to dance at her wedding. That is a rather ambitious objective for me. It requires that I still be around in my mid-nineties and be ambulatory enough to make it onto the dance floor and, at least, sway to the beat of the music.
It might not happen, but that’s what I’m working on.