How to get through the winter.
When I was very young, I lived in a rambling old house in a small town at the foot of the Appalachian Mountain chain which forms the backbone of our South. There were four of us: my mother who was a stay-home mother in the style of those days, my father who was thought to be a wealthy man because he bought a new car every year, my sister who was not much more than a swaddled blob at the time of this story and me. I was the gangling one with long, skinny arms and legs, the one whose limp fine hair would not stay out of her narrow face.
We were a highly conservative family even for that highly conservative time - back in the twenties, it was. Like all the rest of the town, we went to church on Sundays, mama and me and my baby sister on Wednesday night, too and never even thought to ask any questions about what we were told. We shopped at the town department store which was owned by Jews, the only ones in town. We felt protective of them; they were our Jews and we were proud to have them. A railroad track ran through the middle of town but we lived on the right side, so we never minded it.
There was one thing which made us different. Mama made medicine. She didn't make all kinds of medicine, just the kind for coughs and colds, but it was so special I have never forgotten it.
You see, we were not drinking people. Of course, daddy took his drink now and then. It was only natural; he was a man after all. But we were firmly told every single Sunday that drinking was the worst sin you could commit and we believed it with all our hearts. So, none of the rest of us ever even thought of taking to drink.
Mama had some family in the sheriff business and they told us about all the stills which they found in the woods and down the red-dirt roads around our town. One time, they even broke up one which belonged to the town doctor's son. That was a scandal for a long time. The ladies whispered behind their fans at church when the doctor's wife would come sailing in with her hat tilted off her face so she wouldn't look like she was ashamed. It took a while but the doctor's family finally lived it down and everybody pretended it had never happened. Well, Mama's contacts in the police knew where things were hid and when Mama asked them to bring her a jug or two of the whiskey they confiscated, they were happy to oblige.
I don't know how much you know about raw whiskey. I think it likely very few of you have ever seen or drunk any of it. It usually comes in a gallon jug, the recycled kind that things like apple cider is sold in. The whiskey is white as water, since it isn't aged, and strong as a laboratory solvent. We called it 'bootleg' although some people called it 'white lightning' or 'moonshine'. It was cheap and would do the job if all you were looking for was a quick drunk. Some of the stuff out there was dangerous because it might contain lead or other impurities depending on what had been available when they were looking for parts to make the still, but Mama's relatives took care to bring her only the good, safe almost drinkable kind.
Now, what Mama did with this bootleg was to make her medicine. She took it into the kitchen and got out the rock candy and the asafetida. I suppose you don't know what those things are, either. Rock candy is sugar which has been boiled and allowed to crystalize on a toothpick or on a string. It is nothing but big crystals of pure sugar. Asafetida is a gummy, brownish substance which smells like what Mama used to call 'carn', which I think means 'carrion'. The asafetida came from India and was the most exotic thing in our house. I once stuck my finger in the little flat tin it came in and tasted it. Christ! Never again! It was as bitter as homemade sin and clung to my teeth for most of the day.
Mama would mix these three ingredients together with a wooden spoon and pour everything back into the whiskey jug and put it in the pantry to settle. After a week or so, she would take it out and, using a funnel and strainer, pour her concoction into pint bottles and canning jars, depending on what she had. This was to be our winter tribulation.
At the first sign of a cough or hoarseness, at the hint of a sniff, out would come the medicine and a very big spoon. Strangers to our house who dared to sneeze never made that mistake again. One dose of Mama's medicine was guaranteed to cure anything short of pneumonia and it might well have handled that, given the chance. A second dose was never requested by anybody.
Daddy's mother was a fat little merry woman who was a hard-shelled Baptist. We are talking hard-shelled like a tortoise. She went to church on Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, Wednesday prayer meetings and Saturday nights. Her idea of a wild celebration was an 'all-day gathering' on the grounds of the church with everybody bringing food and singing and preaching for entertainment all day long and far into the night. To her mind, there was nothing better than Jesus and nothing worse than drinking.
She used to come visit us for days at a time, particularly during the winter when there wasn't much to do on the farm where she and granddad lived. It was the oddest thing - she was always healthy as she could be on the farm, but the moment she set foot in our house, she developed colds. She was always saying, "You know, Maude (that was Mama), I do believe I feel a chill coming on."
And Mama would go to the cabinet and get out the medicine bottle and the spoon and hand it to grandma with dutiful concern. After a day or two, grandma would quit mentioning her chills and dispense with the spoon. It was not unusual to come upon her replacing the medicine in the cabinet and wiping her lips muttering something about how a body had to take care in this awful weather.
One of the nicest things about grandma's visits was that you could depend on her to use up most of the medicine Mama had made and free the rest of us from the threat of being dosed for the rest of the winter. Strict rationing went into effect immediately after grandma left and the last of the medicine was reserved for really serious colds. Really serious cold - which I took great care not to have.