Keeping Me Healthy?
© Edward A. Iannuccilli, MD, FACP
She appeared like magic, wearing an evil- scaring gold cornu on a gold necklace around her neck. As soon as I appeared ill, Grandma arrived, laden with heroic, valiant, Pagan remedies imported from Pollutri, in the southern province of Chieti. She assured me. I protested. I lost.
I had a sore throat. Her remedy was to separate egg whites from the yolk, beat them, and then soak a cloth (the mopine) in the foaming whites. She wrapped the wet mopine around my neck and fastened it with a large safety pin. The gooey, gummy, mushy, squishy whites was left for hours, while the mopine became as cold and as stiff as a layer of ice. My neck was immobilized, my throat no better. I lied.
Cat urine directly applied to a stye made no sense.
A cold potato on a burn made some sense.
Garlic cloves for a toothache; Octagon soap, crushed, and mixed with sugar, for a boil; weeds soaked with urine and directly applied for poison ivy; heated and melted camphor on the chest for a cough.
She feared the ‘mal’occhio’ (“malooka”), the evil eye, believing that someone issued a curse. The mal’occhio was a strong, severe look from someone, a curse that caused bad health and could be relieved only by “doing the malooka.”
“Evil is in the air,” she would say, making the sign of a cornu (inverted horn) with her first and last fingers while dropping oil on water into a shallow bowl and reading its pattern to ward off bad spirits. She made the sign of the cross. If the olive oil remained in single drops, the sickness was not from mal’occhio. If the oil spread over the water, was the proof that mal’occhio was the reason. She shifted into prayer.
“Let the mal'occhio get behind you and God bring you ahead.”
Modern day Christianity eventually crept into her practice, forcing Grandma to abandon that custom in time.
“Belief in superstition will get you to Hell.”
Among Italians, bowel fixations were common. A clean bowel meant good feeling and good health. She had ways.
The tonic or the laxative? Vile tasting castor oil was her favorite…. for everything; fever, pain, rashes, aches, falls, constipation, even diarrhea. It was also used as a preventive. Grandmother brought us to a local shop for an occasional dose. Pallid waifs lined up and stood rigidly with tight-pursed lips, pole like arms rigid by our sides, fists clenched, mouths open on command. Down it went, a ‘gulp’ followed by an‘errgh’ or a ‘yuk’ and a total body quiver!
If that didn’t work then there was The Enema: the universal cure, the worst of all, warm water (soapsuds sometimes added). If I appeared listless, Grandma felt my head with her personal, ever- accurate thermometer, the back of her hand. Her decision was final. If she paused and stared, I knew I had a fever and was in for it, or it was in for me. She ordered me to bed where I lay on my side, pants halfway down, legs curled to my chest. She smeared the nozzle with Vaseline. She raised the brown bag full of the warm effluent. She hung it on a hook on a tall bedpost. She approached. She inserted the weapon. She released the stopper on the hose. I began to fill, to fill, to fill, and to fill, ever so slowly, finally.
“I can’t! No more!”
“Hold it, hold it, you need it, don’t let go! Hold it!”
The bag took forever to empty, the urge to return the fluid stronger and stronger. Finally, thankfully, she closed the valve and pulled the nozzle. But I had one more stop, made in a rush, short steps, pants at my knees, to the bathroom, around the corner, so, so far away.
“Squeeze your cheeks; hold your pants up, hurry, run!”
Please, please let that porcelain oasis be unoccupied. Where was grandpa? I hope not in the bathroom. No. Thank god. There. Relief. It was over. I was ruined, sick with the urge to vomit, sweating, appetite gone, fearful of another offensive if the back of her hand so declared.
I survived, healthy, unharmed, I think. Family love, I suppose, Grandma’s remedies among its expressions. I guess I am, should be, have to be, will be, thankful.