By: Elaine Marze
My quest began when my mother and aunt, both in their late 80’s, shared memories with me about how when they were girls and a new sibling was born they would go to a nearby creek bed to dig plants to make a necklace for the new baby. Neither of them could remember the plant or what its purpose was, but thankfully Sylvia Evans Brown does remember.
Ms. Sylvia is a living, walking, talking fount of information. In her 99 years living in the Toro bottom / Rattan area of Sabine Parish she has seen a lot of changes, and she says her mind is as sharp as it ever was due to keeping active. She reads, works puzzles, quilts and crochets. She has been crocheting baby blankets so long that she says some families has three generations of blankets she’s made. A childless widow who lives alone, Ms. Sylvia is proud that she can do her own housework and cooking though she admits to her legs being some wobbly.
Josephine Miers was the midwife who delivered my grandma’s first seven babies. When birthing time came my grandpa would get on his horse to go fetch her. Sylvia believes it was Lady Fingers that my mother, Mellionee Byrd Flores and her sister Charlene Byrd Owens, dug up to make the herbal baby necklaces thought to prevent colic and other childhood illnesses. After the roots were dried Sylvia said they just ran a threaded needle through the roots to make the necklaces. Another disease fighting necklace usually worn by babies and toddlers was made out of asphidity (also spelled asafitidy). Chunks of blue asphidity bars were wrapped in bits of cloth, and tied by string woven into necklaces. Asphidity smelled so bad young Sylvia would avoid a baby or toddler wearing an asphidity necklace.
Lady Finger plants had a white tassel bloom, and the roots could also be boiled for a tonic. While she was in the woods squirrel hunting one day, Sylvia ran across a yellow blooming medicinal Lady Slipper plant she intended to dig up and replant in her garden after the hunt, but sadly, deer beat her to it.
Sylvia and her six siblings got a dose of cod liver oil every morning. (It’s still used to prevent rickets.) She vividly remembers the taste and smell. Nasty!
Some old home remedies were seasonal. Every spring from the time she could walk, Sylvia joined family and friends to seek out sassafras plant roots to boil with a little sugar added for sweetening to make a tea that she thinks tasted like present day root beer sody. This tea thinned the blood after hard winters to prevent clots. “Now I take a pill the doctor prescribes to thin my blood but then we drank sassafras tonic,” she says.
Each spring her Uncle Tom Evans would buy Calomel, a white powder, from the drug store, and he would use his pocket knife to fill little capsules to take them around the community. The dosage was one capsule a day for a week to ward off chills and fevers which were common, and castor oil was also taken for colds.
Ms. Sylvia says that when she was constipated she tried not to let her mother know because she didn’t want to have to take black draft (Black Draught) which was ground up dry leaves / roots (senma, and maybe rhubarb, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves). These dried plants were rolled in baking sody to make Nash pills. She said it would sure cure constipation, but the cramps that came along with the cure were very painful but it was common to give kids Nash pills every Friday night to “clean us out.”
Earaches were often treated by baking an onion until it was soft, and then squeezing its juice into the aching ear. “It absolutely cured the earache!” Sylvia testifies from personal experience.
Chicken broth was good for settling an upset stomach among other ailments. Sylvia says that when her sickly sister would complain of stomach problems her grandma would say, “Go get me a broiler (young chicken).” Then her grandma would pluck and boil it, thicken it with corn meal, and Sylvia said she loved it so much she would gag herself so she could lie on the bed next to her sickly sister to get some of that delicious broth.
The Seven Year Itch was a frequent affliction. Sylvia’s daddy bought sulfur and carbolic acid which her momma would then mix with lard to make a paste. “Momma would bathe us kids out in the smoke house, and then rub us down with that nasty paste. Daddy would carry us to the back porch so we wouldn’t get our feet dirty. “School kids had some interesting smells due to treatments back in those days including the popular Vicks Vapor Rub.
Intestinal parasites were an ever present problem. Everybody had farm animals and kids went barefoot thus monthly worming was a necessity. Folks passed pin, round and hook worms back and forth. In fact, Ms. Sylvia says that with kids sleeping together they needed to get wormed together because at night the worms would come out of one hiney and go into another. One popular worm antidote was called Blue Mast; little balls rolled in baking soda to swallow. Sylvia says when kids had worms they turned a pale, pasty color.
To prevent blood poisoning, lockjaw and gangrene kerosene was poured over wounds. My aunt stepped on a hog tusk one night when we were running barefoot outside. Grandpa held her down and poured kerosene onto her bleeding foot. She screamed like it really hurt. My mother said when she stepped on a rusty nail her dad poured kerosene on her foot, built up a fire and held her foot over the smoke, believing it would fight infection.
Bark from Red (not White) Oak trees was boiled, strained and the syrup was poured over a spoon of sugar to treat sore throat and colds. Truman Miers, grandson of the midwife Josephine Miers, said he can remember that his grandma used spider webs to treat wounds, and they cut bark off of what was known as Toothache trees to chew to numb tooth pain.
Ninety-nine years of first-hand information about home remedies is a treasure trove.