The oldest child is an experimental spawn. That’s what I was with lots of aunts and an inexperienced mother.
I remember lying in bed with a slight fever listening to Mother and Aunt Margie discuss buttermilk.
“Merilyn,” Aunt Margie said, “Buttermilk is great for sick kids. It brings down fevers.”
“But Margie, I don’t have any buttermilk. And, the stores are closed.”
I drifted off to sleep as pans rattled. The two sisters, like Shakespearean witches, busily concocted an elixir: a pot of milk with a stick of melted butter brewed. They awoke me. Mother helped me sit up and Aunt Margie handed me the cup.
“Drink this. It’ll make you feel better.”
I obliged, thinking, chicken soup.
After a sudden shudder, the warm greasy liquid rumbled back up and burst out of my mouth.
They glared at me! It was their magic that didn’t work!
From that time on, like Pavlov’s dog, I was conditioned for doom. Two weeks later, while riding in Uncle Bill’s car snaking down a bumpy mountainous road near Long Valley, I read a road sign: Stop here! Oatmeal and warm buttermilk. Whoops!
Mother and Aunt Margie didn’t care for the looks of my straight brown hair. Shirley Temple copycat curls were all the rage. Announcement: “We’re going to give you a permanent.” A what?
They washed my hair and worked a smelly liquid through it, then rolled the small strands onto little cardboard curlers with ends that folded back to hold them in place. Small bottles of potions were opened.
I knelt on the bathroom floor pressed against the bathtub stretching over the edge as far as my short neck could reach. They handed me a towel. “Hold this tight against your face so you don’t burn your eyes.” It was POW torture. The gut-retching smell and smothering scratchy towel didn’t fall under my category of Sacrifices for Glamour. Who cared about Shirley Temple or was this Aunt Margie’s way of punishing me for cleaning the toilet with her toothbrush?
I held the towel against my face as they doused each curler with ammonia. “Hold that towel tight!” It took forever. The last step, neutralizer, was finally applied. They unrolled the curlers and my frizzy hair stank for days. Mr. Bauer, our old neighbor, pinched my cheek. “Your hair looks like an explosion in a mattress factory, kid.” Part of his remark was retaliatory for the time he’d bent over and I bit him on the behind.
Towels and gross smells became fiendish instruments of experimentation. The next time I got sick, Mother and Aunt Margie dropped gobs of Vicks Vapo-Rub into a cauldron of steaming water. My head was positioned directly over the rising vapors and draped with that same towel to catch the cure-all fumes. My first pangs of claustrophobia. My eyes burned even with their lids shut. The fumes were more intense than that Shirley Temple perm.
Skinned knees filled with cinders provided another opportunity for experimental hocus-pocus: Straight from the brown bottle — hydrogen peroxide dumped into the open wound. “Fizzle, foam, boil and bubble. When shall we three meet again? Never, would be too soon.” Cinders festered up and out, but the direct blast of peroxide was like a sudden side trip to the nether world. Athlete’s Foot? They dunked my foot into a bowl filled with blistering iodine-laced CN. The same stuff used to disinfect latrines at Sacagawea Girl Scout camp.
I’ll never forget the day Mother and Aunt Margie sat me down in the parlor. I was apprehensive because the parlor was forbidden to children. With Dr. Spock’s book in hand, not Star Trek’s navigation officer, but it might as well have been, they calmly followed the guidelines for “How to tell an only child that a sibling is on the way.” I made a low, long sigh. The two looked at me with doleful, sympathetic glares. Little did they know my sigh was that of relief. Yes! Someone else’s turn!
Mother stared at me thoughtfully. “Is something wrong, dear? Do you have a tummy-ache?” She glanced towards the kitchen.
No! Not buttermilk! I backed out of the room and retched.
Carol MacAllister has placed numerous short stories in trade collections. The latest is in Chicken Soup for the Soul, “Happily Everafter.” She has recently completed an historical novel, God Only Watches. Three of its chapters have recently won writing competitions and she hopes to place it with a publishing house.