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Mentholated Memories

I was talking on the phone with my feisty friend Gretchen the other day and—though she claims not to be able to understand a word I say on my cell phone, and that there is no such thing as a private conversation on a cell phone—she quite clearly heard my cough.

It’s a bad cough. It’s a break-a-rib bad cough (something I have done in the past and would not like to repeat). A Moulin Rouge bad cough, though my resemblance to Nicole Kidman ends there.

Gretchen, hearing it, announced that I should immediately take a hot shower. Or not even get in the shower if I didn’t want to—just breath the steam.

And then Gretchen, who holds all kinds of interesting and well-informed views on everything from Laura Bush’s purported marijuana use to the details of President Obama’s budget proposal, said to me, “It’s the issue of the world today—to get humidity into our houses.”

Well, that stopped me right in my tracks.

I mean, in a time of horrible economic crisis, war, poverty, global warming and generalized doom and gloom, getting more humidity into our houses seems something do-able.

Everybody can put a little pan of water on a radiator, open the bathroom door when they shower, plug in the humidifier and take a hot water bottle to bed. (Hot water bottles may not affect the humidity level, but they sure feel good.)

And Gretchen seems to think humidity will cure my cough.

That got me thinking about some of the strange cure-alls I was subjected to as a child.

Like Vicks, for example. My mother swore by it.

I was the elementary school kid identifiable by its odor.

She’d rub it on my chest and neck. She’d rub it on my temples if I had a headache. When I had a head-cold she’d put it on my nose. I’d go to school looking as though I’d stuck my face in a jar of Vaseline Petroleum Jelly—which is similar in texture, but doesn’t smell.

As if that were not bad enough, sometimes she’d put a little bit on a teaspoon and yes, I would eat it. I don’t remember what that was supposed to cure.

All I knew was that the liberal use of Vicks was just one my mother’s panaceas.

She was also fond of prune juice. A fan of regularity, she would heat the dark matter up in a saucepan and present it to me at the breakfast table right next to my plate of cinnamon toast.

I was able to accept that her use of Vicks was in no way passive-aggressive. I was far less sure about the prune juice.

Hot prune juice.

For years I couldn’t eat hammantaschen because of the prune filling.

A few months after she died, in a fit of inexplicable nostalgia, I actually bought a bottle of prune juice. I wasn’t going to heat it, of course. I was just going to try it.

Some tastes never change.

My mother was also into Ben-gay, the very stinky, heat-creating rub that you never want to get anywhere near your eyes or genitals. (A guy in my college dorm complex pulled a groin muscle playing intramural soccer and his girlfriend tried to help him out.)

Anyway, my mother had arthritis in her finger joints and so she kept a tube of Ben-gay on hand at all times. Right next to the Vicks.

I didn’t mind the Ben-gay. I was used to strong-smelling, foul-tasting medicaments. (Don’t get me started on the Milk of Magnesia. Talk about being gagged with a spoon.)

But when I was 13 I was diagnosed with a mild case of scoliosis. My mother wasn’t so fey as to think Vicks would be of any help. But she did periodically lather up my ribcage with Ben-gay.

The thing is, scoliosis doesn’t just get better. It’s a matter of preventing it from getting worse. The best shot I had at that was activity—in my case, dance classes and numberless abdominal crunches.

But my mother swore the Ben-gay was working wonders.

“Stand up straight,” she said and looked closely at my shoulders, “I think it’s a little better today.”

She had some theory that the heat would relax the muscles that were pulling at my spine and that I’d even out a bit.

There’s all this talk today about Ritalin, but between the Vicks and the prune juice and the Ben-gay I was a fairly heavily-medicated kid.

And fairly neurotic, too, terrified of colds and tormented by thoughts of irregularity.

But humidity! What a sweet answer to life’s little ills.

And in particular, to this bad-ass cough.

—Jo Page

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