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My grandmother — we all called her Ma Thorn — didn't have a thermometer. She’d raised seven children without one. She said she could tell if a child had a high fever and knew what to do. Anything less, she didn't want to worry with. This is what she said when my mother left me in her care. My mother should have remembered, having been one of the seven. It was 1930, the beginning of the Great Depression. My grandmother was a widow managing a huge dust bowl farm. My mother, recently divorced, had to work in town for $45 a month.
Ma Thorn had little time to tend to a child. She took me around the fenced yard to mark my horizontal boundaries, and pointed to the second rail up on the windmill, my vertical boundary. She showed me the crock that held the big digging spoons on the kitchen safe where she made biscuits, the box of scraps I could play with in the closet by the stove in the dining room (the pot-bellied wood stove enthroned in the abandoned fireplace). And last, she showed me the shelf where the Dr. Porter’s Healing Oil stood on a neatly folded dishtowel next to the big black medical book. I was to use the healing oil for any scrape or simple small wound.
That freed her for her endless tasks, from starting the fire in the wood range at 4:30 for early morning biscuits to sunset when she sat on the west steps outside the lean-to bedroom she called her Retreat listing her completed chores in a big gray journal — the washings, ironings, canning, gardening, cooking, darning, sewing, soap-making, chicken-feeding, ad infinitum - plus the comings and goings of people on the farm (My mother told me that Ma Thorn’s journal had been used in court one time to prove who had been where that day).
She was clearly too busy to tend to small scrapes, so I had independence within the broad limits she set. I was a big girl on a big important farm.
I can almost reach up and touch it now — the golden balm in the little bottle on a tray next to the thick black book of home remedies, on the second shelf in the walk-through closet by the old fireplace in the dining room — the shelves above the scrap box with its neatly ironed patches of khaki twill, chambray and calico, scraps of flowered feed sack, and bits of old house dresses from the Sears catalog, worn past mending. I could use those, too, if I weren’t greedy.
At three, it felt good to know my limits, and to have such freedom of invention within them. I felt the same comfort and challenge when later I stood before a canvas with its four sides like a farmyard daring me to create. But by then I had no Dr. Porter's Healing Oil to sooth me.
I watched one day as Aunt Mildred constructed on her treadle sewing machine dresses for herself and for me from patterned feed sacks to wear to the brush-arbor meeting down the road. Aunt Mildred was not a real aunt. Her husband, Lee, did the plowing and sometimes let me ride with him behind the two mules, old Jack and old Blue. Mildred helped Ma Thorn some and took me off her hands on occasion. I remember bathing in a No. 2 washtub in the kitchen of her two-room house before putting on my new dress.
The visiting revivalist took as his text a passage from Jeremiah, “Is there no balm in Gilead?”. In the lamplight I thought I detected the sparkle of tears on the preacher’s cheeks. When I asked Aunt Mildred what the preacher meant by balm, she advised me to go to Ma Thorn.
When I asked Ma Thorn about what Jeremiah had said, she put her darning aside and opened the big Unabridged Webster’s on the brass stand. From it she read aloud, “Balm of Gilead — an agency that soothes, relieves, or heals.“ She had shown me how to handle the big dictionary on its ornate brass stand, to press the sides so it would spring open, to take a section of pages reverently between my small palms and not to tear one page at a time from the top. But I hadn’t learned the magic of reading yet. I thought when Ma Thorn read out loud what balm was, that the preacher could stop agonizing about Gilead and go to Ma Thorn's shelf for the Healing Oil.
After my mother remarried, I joined her and her new husband in the big city of Austin and started school. Full of new knowledge, I returned to the farm one summer and idly picked up the Dr. Porter's to read the label. To my consternation I found a list of diseases of cattle on my golden balm, the first on the list — Anthrax. Dr. Porter's magic potion was a veterinary medicine! I felt a tad bamboozled when I first read that, but after awhile I could picture Dr. Porter called out to examine a horse's injured fetlock, or a to help a cow give birth. I could smell him. He must have smelled like the cow my cousin milked while I stood with her cockle-burred tail switched around my neck and held a tin cup under her streaming teat. I was not always a good girl. Ma Thorn's remedy for tantrums was to sit calmly on the edge of her cot and read aloud from a children's book — The Little Small Red Hen or The Child's Garden of Verses or Chicken Little. Now that the sky is falling, I called a couple of veterinarians in town and asked if they had ever heard of Dr. Porter’s. They hadn’t. They use antibiotics now, they said. And I wondered if they hadn’t at one time had the sure cure for everything, right there on the shelf, and lost it.
© Barbara Fryrear 2003
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