KILL OR CURE
Those of you who have followed stories of my childhood, growing up with my grandma, have heard some of the horror stories of my gran’s cures for all ailments. In today’s world, grandma’s cures would be thought of as odd and a bit eccentric, two hundred years ago she would probably have been accused of witchcraft.
|My gran had a cure for whatever ailed you and I often felt that her philosophy was that the worst it tasted, smelled or stung, the better for the patient.
I had childhood asthma, probably because the upstairs bedrooms never got warm and always had a damp feeling. I had a permanent wheeze and when it got bad, I often had to sit up all night as I couldn’t breath lying down.
Gran treated my “weak chest” as it was called then by wrapping me in various layers of warm clothing. All English kids of my generation wore a Liberty bodice. A sort of short sleeved shirt, cotton fabric reinforced with satin vertical stripes. This would be buttoned up the front with around twenty tiny rubber buttons, they were rubber so they wouldn’t break in the big, old fashioned wringer that was an integral part of laundry day. This was only changed once a week, on bath night, which was just as well as the buttons took forever to push through the holes.
Underneath my Liberty bodice was a thick layer of goose grease, the cure-all for most chest ailments in Lancashire. Pinned to the neck of my garment was a camphor bag. Camphor is what moth balls were made of and the accompanying stink was supposed to keep me breathing freely. I know it made my eyes water with the smell that I couldn’t get away from.
A cough or cold also brought the added comfort of one of gran’s old lisle stockings, wrapped around my neck and holding in place a thick slab of fatty, raw bacon. I honestly thought nothing of all this as a child as many of my classmates wore similar home cures. Our poor teacher must have loved bending over her charges to see how their work was progressing and inhaling the various salves and potions.
Burns were treated with a liberal coating of butter and boils were treated in the cruellest way possible. Some milk would be boiled on the stove, a crust of bread soaked in it then slapped on the boil. The resulting cry and yell of the person getting treated seemed to convince gran that it was working. Luckily, I never once had a boil but my older brother, who was a bully and very nasty, was a frequent sufferer and would be brought to gran for treatment. I thought it was God’s way of punishing him for his cruelty to animals.
Gran made excellent cough syrup. She boiled together linseed, liquorish and lemons and it made a thick brown goo that tasted good. But any pleasure was soon forgotten when the cod liver oil was dispensed. It made me want to vomit but I swallowed it or the dose would be repeated. The resultant fishy taste would echo back through my digestive system for hours, it was really foul.
Friday night meant bath night. The big zinc bathtub was brought in from the yard, set in front of the fire and filled with hot water, I would have my hair washed and then could play in the bath for a while, which I loved. Gran would then dry me off and get my nightie on, it was then time for the weekly nit search.
Lice seemed to be the bane of kids of my generation but, for some reason, probably the stinky camphor bag, I never got them, however, I still had the weekly check. Kneeling in front of my grandma, who had a newspaper spread on her lap, she would comb through my hair with a nit comb. This was fine toothed, metal comb that caught any lice eggs between the teeth and fished them out of the hair. Every week I silently prayed she wouldn’t find any hitch-hikers, and she never did. However, when I was about ten, another cousin came to live with us as her mom had passed away. I don’t know why but she managed to get nits, none stop.
As gran found one offender after another, my cousin would receive a smack on the side of the head and a renewed scraping with the dreaded comb, until, I’m sure her head was raw. After this torture came the shampooing with the special medicated soap, which had to be left on for a while, then rinsed off. I felt really sorry for her but was so glad not to be on the receiving end of this treatment, that I kept quiet. Some of the poor neighbour children had mums that didn’t bother with the treatments and the kids got their heads shaved. What a cruel way to be singled out as a child, in those days nobody thought kids had feelings and were greatly ignored.
Growing up was a challenge and as nobody had any money, it was always a case of neighbour helping neighbour. Grandma helped deliver babies, she also laid out the dead. These were the days of the whole village knowing our business and everyone seemed to care about everyone else. Old ladies always had neighbours to carry coal in the house, children were taught to fetch groceries for them and nobody spent Christmas Day alone. A child found crying was brought indoors and looked after, until the problem had been solved. A neighbour was just as likely to give you a smack for bad behaviour as your caregiver, but you also knew that same neighbour would loo out for you, if you were in trouble.
A different world? Yes indeed, many of us now would be thought of as interfering if we took charge of someone else’s child, without being asked but I think many of us would still like to be good neighbours and lend a hand, we are maybe just frightened of being rebuffed. Still, it wouldn’t hurt any of us to try.