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A Cure for What Ails You 

A Cure for What Ails You
Detail from The Sick Child/Gabriel Metsu/Public Domain

Night Vapors, Grizzlewood, and Farm Doctor Moms

Art cutline: Detail from The Sick Child/Gabriel Metsu/Public Domain

By Mary Batten

I have been a science writer for many years. I know very well that cold weather, wind, and morning dew don’t make you sick. I know this with every firing neuron of my rational brain, but at the primitive reptilian part of my brain, I have a visceral reaction to night air, drafts, and cold wind. 

“Don’t sit in a draft, you’ll get a stiff neck.” 

“Don’t go outdoors with wet hair, you’ll catch pneumonia.” 

These warnings from my parents and other family elders are stored in my memory like data that never disappears from a hard drive. There were just certain things I knew would make me sick. I knew this with conviction because my mother and grandmother and aunts told me so.

Drinking milk or eating ice cream at the same meal with fish or crabs could make you deathly ill. Going barefoot in the morning dew could cause dew poison. Washing your hair while having a period was forbidden, though nobody seemed to know what harm could come of it. Playing outside on a cold, windy day could bring on croup. Going against these warnings was to challenge the forces of nature.

Belief has a powerful effect on health, as many studies show. But during the 1940s and ’50s when I was growing up on a peanut farm in Smithfield, Virginia, I didn’t know about the placebo effect or the mind’s role in sickness and health. I believed that drafts and night air really were hazardous to my health.

It was as if the wind could blow germs through the pores of my skin, as if night air was alive with infectious vapors. Some people even believed you shouldn’t let night air fall on clothes hanging on the line. It was hard to do anything without risking sickness.

Farmwomen like my mother, grandmother, and aunts were also medicine women, dispensing advice and treatment. Just as farms were self-sufficient in providing most of the family’s food, they were also medically self-sufficient, using advice and remedies passed on from one generation to the next. During my childhood, you were isolated on a farm. Many roads in southeastern Virginia weren’t paved. Some families, including mine, didn’t even have a telephone or hot water. One of my aunts didn’t have a bathroom in her house, only an outhouse down a narrow dirt path between two barns in the backyard. I loved my aunt and uncle but dreaded visiting them because of the outhouse. I would try as hard as I could not to go to the bathroom when we visited because using that outhouse with its dark, stinking hole was terrifying. I couldn’t forget the neighbor, our school bus driver, who got bitten on his butt by a black widow spider when using an outhouse and spent more than a week in the hospital. I would rather squat down and pee behind a tree than go to that outhouse!  

Nobody thought about seeing a doctor unless you were seriously ill. Health insurance was unknown and home remedies sufficed for almost everything except death. Purgatives were the all-purpose remedy, and castor oil was the purgative of choice. Every time I caught a cold, I cringed. “Child needs a good purgative,” my father would say. I knew what was coming. Mother tried to disguise the vile taste by mixing it with orange juice, but the taste was so nauseating that I couldn’t drink orange juice until I was an adult. Tastes and odors linger. The taste of a madeleine cookie dipped in tea triggered a rush of memories that inspired French writer Marcel Proust to write his seven-volume novel Remembrance of Things Past, but the taste of castor oil in a spoonful of orange juice did not evoke any creative juices in me. Even now the taste of orange juice can sometimes trigger such a strong remembrance of past purgatives that I gag.

Other home remedies included gargling hot, salty water for a sore throat. For sties, Sis Ruth, one of several aunts, rubbed her gold wedding band over the affected eyelid. For an earache, she filled a little flannel bag with Epsom salts. Then she warmed the bag by holding it next to the wood stove and applied it to the aching ear. Heat was curative. I always felt I could stay well in winter if I could just stay warm. Our uninsulated farmhouse had no central heat and the bedrooms were cold in winter. When Mother called us to get up for school, my brother, sister, and I ran downstairs to the dining room and kitchen, which were warmed by wood stoves. Our father got up early, fetched wood from the wood box, put it in the stoves, and lit a fire with a little bit of kerosene and a match. It’s a wonder the house didn’t burn down. 

Mustard plasters relieved chest congestion. Mother followed her mother’s recipe:

3 tablespoons dry mustard.

2 tablespoons flour.

Mix with enough cider vinegar to spread soft.

To make the plaster, Mother cut two identical bodice pieces out of lightweight cotton material such as an old sheet or one of Daddy’s old undershirts. She spread the yellow paste on one bodice piece and covered it with the other, like a sandwich. Then she rubbed our chest with warmed camphorated oil and applied the mustard plaster. It was important to hold the plaster in place until it started burning, though you couldn’t keep it on more than a few minutes or your skin would blister. When you felt the burning, you knew the plaster was doing its work, opening up the chest and drawing out the rheumy phlegm. Years later when I was a student living in Paris, I developed a terrible chest cold and cough. Remembering that some French writers had succumbed to tuberculosis in Paris, I asked the advice of a pharmacist. I was surprised when he recommended mustard plaster. Here in this sophisticated, international capital, I was getting an old home remedy. Well, not quite—French mustard plasters were prepackaged and shaped in little triangles. They weren’t as large as Mother’s mustard plasters, but they worked just as well.

Soaking in hot Epsom salts was a cure-all and the closest my family got to a spa. “As hot as you can stand,” Sis Ruth said. Nobody knew about applying ice during the first 24 hours after an injury. Even if they had known, I doubt they would have done it. Belief was stronger than science.

Turpentine was the liniment of choice for sore muscles. Whenever Daddy had an ache, he wanted Mother to rub him down with it. I never knew whether turpentine relieved pain, but the odor did open the sinuses.

Daddy frequently developed boils, which old people called “risins,” on his neck and arms. Risin was an appropriate name because the infection caused the skin to swell and rise like a miniature volcano. Mother treated boils with “grizzlewood,” a blackish-brown stick of hard goo the size of a roll of coins that she bought at the drugstore.

To prepare grizzlewood, Mother cut a slice about the thickness of a nickel and placed it on a clean square of cloth. She heated a knife blade on the kitchen stove and held it on the grizzlewood, softening it so she could spread it on the cloth. Then she put the cloth with the softened grizzlewood directly on the boil and taped it in place. In a day or two, the grizzlewood brought the boil to a head and drew out the pus-filled core. Following the treatment, the swelling would go down and Daddy’s neck or arm would heal.

I never knew what was in grizzlewood (and neither did any of my family old enough to remember it), but I did some research. Thanks to librarians at the New York Botanical Garden and Eastern Virginia Medical School, I learned that grizzlewood was probably Griswold’s Salve. Doubtless the name grizzlewood evolved through the Southern accent’s creative pronunciation of “Griswold.” The product was discontinued in 1955 because of toxicity; its main ingredient was lead.

Grizzlewood.jpg

C.G. Griswold’s Family Salve/National Museum of American History/Gift of Richard W. Pollay

In the South when I was growing up, ailments and remedies were as much a part of family history as births and marriages. Asking, “How are you?” wasn’t just a polite greeting. It was an invitation to recite one’s medical history. Fever convulsions, pneumonia, pleurisy, kidney stones, gallstones, high blood pressure, operations, agues, carbuncles, impetigo—there was no end of illness. And you’d better be prepared to listen; it was rude to interrupt even if you’d heard the story a dozen times.

I have a theory as to why sickness was such a preoccupation among rural Southern women. Not only were they expected to heal their family’s ailments, there were times when they needed sickness for relief. Sickness offered a socially sanctioned, temporary escape from the relentless work of cooking, cleaning, canning, and childcare. Farmwomen were always working like female ants and bees.

My research in anthropology convinces me that women’s capacity for work and nurturing has been honed by 100,000 years of modern humans’ evolutionary history. Women know they are expected to be responsible for their family’s nutrition and health. Mother and most other farmwomen in my family would sooner work until they dropped rather than give in to sickness. But when sickness became too acute to ignore or deny, women gave themselves permission to take to their beds without feeling guilty. No one could deny a woman’s right to be sick, and no one wanted to be sick without a woman to care for them.

Daddy became solemn when Mother took to her bed. On those rare occasions, the doctor was called and he came to the house. Word passed through the country grapevine and relatives came to visit, bringing food, as if someone was dying. Daddy couldn’t cook worth a damn other than to scramble eggs, fry a few slices of shoulder meat, and make coffee and toast. When Mother was sick, Daddy made himself sick with worry. He depended on her totally. The health of our home depended on her.

Although over-the-counter and prescription medicines have largely replaced old home remedies, there is still a role for “Doctor Mom” to kiss a boo-boo and make it well. But Doctor Moms are now under threat.

Today, in 21st-century United States, women’s bodies have become political issues. Republican legislators, predominantly men, enabled by an extremist Supreme Court majority, have passed abortion bans, taking away women’s bodily autonomy and placing women’s reproductive choice under state control. Endangering women’s lives. These legislators, most of whom will never become pregnant, never know what it is like to give birth, are now waging a cruel war against the sex that birthed them, nurtured them, loved them, cared for them. For whatever perverse reason, these men are reaching backward into centuries of patriarchal use of laws and religion to control women’s life-giving biological process that men can never experience. Under the banner of protecting life, they are endangering it. They are a far greater health hazard than night air and drafts. 

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Mary Batten is a writer for television, film, and publishing. She is the author of 16 nature/science books for children and adults. Her many projects have taken Mary into tropical rainforests, astronomical observatories, and scientific laboratories. She was nominated for an Emmy for her scriptwriting on the Children’s Television Workshop series 3-2-1 CONTACT. In 2020, she created a book series, Life in the Extreme. The first book in that series is Life in a Frozen World: Wildlife of Antarctica (Peachtree 2020). The second book, Life in Hot Water: Wildlife at the Bottom of the Ocean, came out in 2022 and was selected by the National Science Teaching Association for its list of Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12. Her author website is www.marybatten.com.