With me, a sore throat seemed about ready to take my breath away, literally. I’m better today and headed to the doctor, but that three A.M. wake up call was indeed a wake up call.
I tend to believe that I can take care of myself, alone, in all circumstances, although I’ve had some proof to the contrary: getting lost all over the place, from Paris to the mountains here, provide plentiful examples. Perhaps out of hubris, I don’t carry a cell phone when I hike and refused to learn anything about a GPS which seems to me one of the devices designed to obtrude on and eventually destroy our ability to notice our surroundings.
But waking up sick also reminded me of the way I learned to take care of myself from watching what my earliest mentor, Lucy Cummings, did when one of her five charges was taken ill.
There was a lot of illness: tonsillitis, chicken pox, mumps, two varieties of measles, ear aches so bad they called for piercing and draining the ear, a horrible practice, poison ivy infections so extensive a mild pink lotion and long underwear—to hold it on—were the only less than successful cures. Add to that diaper rash in the days of cloth diapers, treated with a coating of Vaseline, colds, coughs, sore throats—it seemed one of us was always in bed with something.
It would be wrong to say that Lucy loved our sicknesses, but she certainly loved the opportunities they gave her for exercising her expertise; she had not only her training as a practical nurse, of which she was immensely proud, but her background as the daughter and granddaughter of country women who knew a lot about healing when there was no doctor for miles around.
Using herbs and roots would have shocked our parents, but they did see the value in laying a piece of warmed flannel, soaked in caster oil, on a congested chest, filling a sink with hot water and persuading a child to stand on a stool and lean over it, hooded with a towel, to breath in the moisture, staying at home in bed two days after the fever subsided (we made good use of coloring books) and keeping the well children out of the sickroom.
Lucy’s routine began when she rooted the dented tin croup kettle out of a closet, filled it, and set it on an electric hot plate. Sometimes she would put a pine-smelling paste in the water; when it boiled, delicious wafts of woodsy moisture filled the room.
Croup, which seems to have disappeared along with a lot of these illnesses, was a potentially fatal congestion prevalent in cold weather; it particularly afflicted infants who would wheeze as though every breath was the last one.
I didn’t have a croup kettle to root out of a closet at three A.M. this morning, but I did have a piece of flannel, some castor oil, a hot water bottle (another of Lucy’s cure-all devices) and a sink of hot water with a towel to hood over it. Probably remembering her freckled, strong, competent hands as she adjusted the towel over my head helped as much as any of these old-time remedies. Lucy gave me her faith in commonsense, practical approaches to illness, which included special foods like a particularly bland and soothing junket for sore throats, home-made chicken broth for fevers, as well sickrooms with the windows open and the shades drawn.
She could not cure our adult distempers, the addictions and broken hearts that took us far away from her care. But at three AM she returns to me as comfort and certitude, filling the bathroom basin with hot water.