Healing. Within the walls of the wartime house.
We were the healthiest kids on the block, and we knew it. We were told that we were and we believed it. If we hurt ourselves, from a bump on the head or stubbed toe or a fall down some stairs, our instructions were clear. Rub it. The purple and yellow bruises that covered our knees and shins, our elbows and foreheads were not a worry and were seldom mentioned. Scrapes and cuts seldom got a band-aid. There were no band-aids in our house. As soon as some arrived in the medicine chest we would use them for sticking things together, for manufacturing something much more important. But the medicine chest always had a small bottle with a red rubber stopper that had a glass rod projecting from it. We knew how to get the little bottle and dab and smear the red liquid onto our injury. We didn’t need help. It was like playing doctor. We were a mercurochrome family. We went for the red stuff. The yellow stuff that some of the other kids had, we later learned, was iodine. Apparently it hurt, but the mercurochrome didn’t. If we had a cut or a scrape, we’d self-administer the mercurochrome right on top of the grit and blood, and would head back out to play and wait for the scab. Fresh air was the best thing for an open cut.
But inevitably the scab would get picked. What kid can resist picking a scab? Between hard nosed play and inevitably dirty fingernails, it would start to get green with pus, and when it did we had a routine: Mom would boil water, put it in the biggest cooking bowl she had, and bring it to us in the front room of our house. Why this ritual would always happen on the chesterfield, in the front room, I wasn’t sure. The water was scalding hot. If the cut was on your head, you had to use a cloth, but otherwise you had to dip the cut right into the steaming water. Even if it was for one zillionth of a second, for the first dip, you still had to do it.
“Dip!” That was the command. In and out. Usually the other kids were watching and howling while the injured party was screaming “I can’t!” for the first 25 micro-millisecond dips. On we would go. And gradually, the dips lengthened in duration to a half second, a second, and suddenly we felt tough and the taunters would shut up. Then the abhorrent chore of dipping turned into a tantalizing test of one’s pain threshold. Who could handle the hottest water? When would I feel that great pleasure of soaking in the hottest water possible?
Perhaps it was the cold Manitoba winters that gave me such a love for hot water. I secretly loved this ritual. Not so much that I would purposefully injure myself, but enough that I never balked when the boiling water treatment was the recommended remedy. Really, it was a cooking of the flesh. When the water became only warm, which of course felt cool to me after my show of endurance, Mom would come in for her inspection. Because there were no band-aids in the house, if we passed the inspection we would be sent outside to dry it up again. She would urge us to keep it clean. If she thought it was really bad, that there still might be some evil foreign substance inside the infected spot, she would use her last resort.
This treatment was perhaps one of the more wholesome uses of two spoons. It was Nana who delivered my first soap and sugar poultice, and I still use it for nagging slivers, ingrown toenails, and nasty burns. Mom would scrape a sliver of soft hand soap onto the spoon from the underside of a bar of soap. Usually, the bar had been sitting on the bottom of the bathtub, surrounded with a fringe of cloudy water. (I don’t think we owned a soap dish). Then she would head back into the kitchen for the sugar bowl. Of course, I was underfoot, following every bit of this episode. I was the patient. I was special! She’d take three pinches of sugar from the bowl and put it onto the same spoon as the soap and then crush the soap and sugar together with the back of the second spoon. After that, she’d set it down for a second and rip a hunk of a sheet, just the right size, and then scrape the poultice onto the sheet. The poultice was usually about the size of a dime, or a quarter, depending on how big the target spot was. She told me that the soap would keep it clean and that the bad germs would be so tempted by the sugar that they would swim up to the poultice and then die in the soap. She would put the poultice on top of the softly cooked open wound and tie the sheet around. It always worked best if it was done at bedtime so that there would be a chance it would be kept on for a while. If I kept it on, it always worked. Sometimes when we would unwrap the poultice, sure enough, it would be slimy and pinkish yellow and I was sure that indeed the bad stuff had left the depths of my flesh and I was fine. There would be no scary red lines shooting up my leg or up my arm screaming, “Blood poisoning!! Blood poisoning!” We never had blood poisoning in our house. We were the healthiest family in the neighbourhood.