Delta Dreaming: Survival

Somehow life seems simpler out in the country. Nowadays, they say you only need two things to work on mechanical stuff. If it is supposed to move and it doesn’t, you need WD-40. If it is not supposed to move but it does, you need duct tape. No mess. No fuss.


The latter is a product of a thousand uses. When a preacher hereabouts ran off with sister-in-law a few years ago, the congregation was nonplussed as to how to announce that he was no longer their pastor as the sign out front stated. An eight-inch strip of duct tape did the job until the painter arrived, a miracle product if there ever was one.


In the old days, physical survival seemed as simple. For external wounds, from snakebite to an open gash, a generous application of “coal oil” usually did the trick until the doctor arrived. We call it kerosene today and it is getting harder to find, what with all the newfangled medicines available. It is like an old love that hasn’t learned the new dance steps and just sits outside the barn listening to the music.


If a person had an internal malady, Vicks “salve” was the cure. Actually, it was Vicks VapoRub but all I ever heard, pronounced as one word, was “Vicksalve.” It was normally administered externally, as the name suggests, by rubbing or by simple contact. Many a grown survivor of Depression-era parents still shudders at the memory of a night spent suffering with a “Vicksalve rag” pinned around the neck.


Some took it internally as well. There is a legend that it once saved my grandmother’s life when she lay near death giving birth to her eighth child, my mother of whom I spoke yesterday. The story was told by our family matriarch, my Aunt Hallie (who once proudly showed me a small white church in Cleveland County, Arkansas where, at the age of 14, “The Lord saved my soul and your Uncle Carl saved me from being an old maid.”)


It seems the doctor present had given up hope for the feeble woman when, as a last resort, “he made her swallow a tablespoon of—you guessed it— “Vicksalve” whereupon the lady recovered her strength long enough to give birth to a three-pound daughter and then live into her eighties.


As for my mother who was laid aside as surely not going to live, she also beat expectations. She enjoyed a full, although abbreviated, life of doting on her children, managing her husband without his suspecting a thing, shopping with her sisters, filching half-dollars to buy the latest Elvis record, distrusting—to the point of disliking—“religious fanatics,” and crying every time she heard the Dolly Parton song “My Coat of Many Colors.” All of this was made possible, my aunt swore, because of a little “bate of Vicksalve.”


See my short story, pretty much true except for the parts that aren’t, about one of my saddest moments with my Mother.


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