My great-grandfather W.A. Proctor, M.D., practiced medicine for more than twenty years in the late nineteenth century in Homer, Kentucky before settling in Auburn, Kentucky with my great-grandmother, Annie Chick and their eight children. While I never met either of them, stories of their lives were part of the oral history of my family. In the fifties, medicine was taking its rightful place in history as the Salk vaccine was introduced and children received the recommended vaccinations to prevent smallpox, polio, diphtheria and other debilitating diseases of the time. There was debate as there is now, but the realities of polio were severe and life-threatening and the eradication of the disease was a significant milestone for those of us living in the United States. While the progression of modern medicine continued with each new discovery or drug, the reliability of homeopathic medicine solved many of the problems then, as it still does today and continues to have ts remarkable place in history. And, I am certain that as Mother raised her four children, she often relied on the Old Wives’ tales that had been passed to her from her own mother and grandmother, regardless of the fact that her grandfather was a doctor.
In the 50’s there were no nurse advice lines or internet searches for the latest cure or treatment for the common cold, stomach ache, minor bumps and bruises or the undiagnosed malady of the day. There were no urgent care centers either, so a trip to the doctor was reserved only for desperate situations and home remedies for milder ailments were common. When Sissy and I were sick with an upper respiratory infection, Mother generously rubbed camphor oil on a cloth, or quite possibly a rag, and safety-pinned the cloth to the inside of our pajamas against our tiny flat chests which rattled with fluid when we coughed. The coolness of the camphor against the skin and the mild anesthetic effects of its ingredients helped alleviate some of the discomfort of the illness. The continuous sound of mist escaping from the humidifier that rested on the floor, aided our breathing, as we inhaled the vapors of the camphor oil and relaxed into an easier sleep.
A camphor oil rub for a congested chest, baking soda for a bee sting and warm Jell-O® for a case of diarrhea; these were the remedies of the day. My favorite was the warm Jell-O®. Mother boiled water, poured the sugar crystals in a bowl and stirred in one cup of boiling water, followed by either a cup of cold water or a cup of ice, into the bowl. She stirred the ingredients until the crystals dissolved and cooled. Still warm, she then split the concoction in two. One for each of us.
Of course, that was if we were both sick at the same time. Inevitably duo-diseases occurred as we shared the same bedroom; and by virtue of our closeness in age, we passed the virulent bugs back and forth between us. In the fifties, it was not uncommon for parents to want their children to pass communicable diseases between all of the siblings. It was much easier to deal with two kids with chicken pox in close proximity than it was to have incidences of the illness spread out over days and often weeks, considering the incubation period of each particular disease.
Sissy always seemed to attract the disease first, which always made me mad. Just once I wanted to give her something. More than likely it was because she was older and went to school and I stayed home with Mother, unexposed and uncontaminated. First the measles-not the three day variety, but what was referred to as the hard measles, which lasted more than a week and required us to stay in a darkened room. The red, prickly rash and the continuing fever which accompanied this variety of measles were more serious than the three day variety and caused our parents much greater concern. My contracting the disease was not an issue because once Sissy brandished the symptoms; I followed the same path with an identical rash, fever and lethargy. This pattern followed for chickenpox and every other bug she brought home from school. When Sissy contracted the mumps, I slept with her in the small twin bed solely for the purpose of contracting the disease. I never came down with any symptoms, but years later when a job required proof of disease, a blood titer revealed that yes, in fact I had contracted the mumps at some point in my life. Once again, I was the victim of sisterly contagion.
Warm Jell-O® and baking soda weren’t the only home grown remedies Mother used. We ate bananas and milk toast and at times were treated to a broiled T-bone steak and some other liquid chocolate concoction that required a trip to the drug store and a conversation with the pharmacist.
I have no idea why a broiled steak was on the menu when we were sick, but from our sick beds, we smelled the mixture of odors coming from the kitchen as Mother broiled steak and prepared the Jell-O® to settle our stomachs and keep trips to the bathroom at a minimum.
Smoke curled out of the crack left open in the oven door while the fatty portions of meat browned to a crisp as Mother leaned over and carefully watched the bright red coils of the broiler finish the remainder of the steak. Once our sick lunch was ready, we cautiously chewed the bite-sized portions Mother cut and drank the warm liquid to wash down the meat. Bananas followed as the remedy for diarrhea relied on the properties of the pectin in the Jell-O® and the bananas to solidify the goods. I have never quite understood the value of the broiled steak. Perhaps Mother just wanted an excuse to serve us a T-bone, which was a rare and special treat in our house.
Mother was rarely sick, but I remember a time when she was confined to the bed for the day. Daddy was off to work and the two of us were left to care for her. We were no more than five and six at the time and we certainly couldn’t re-enact the broiled steak, milk toast or warm Jell-O® for that matter, but we repeatedly retrieved bananas from the kitchen and spent the rest of the day curled up beside her with our heads lying on her chest. Even sick, she seemed to be taking care of us, providing the protection, warmth and security that only a mother can give. The oldest of the old wives’ tale passed from one generation to the next, and not a tale at all.