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
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
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.
For years I couldn’t eat hammantaschen because of the
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
But my mother swore the Ben-gay was working wonders.
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
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.