“When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head.
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day.”
from Land of the Counterpane by Robert Louis Stevenson
On the rare occasion when I was sick enough to stay home and miss school, my mother would allow me to spend the day in my parents’ bed. It was a double bed with an iron headboard and footboard, done in fancy scrolls to mimic the more expensive brass variety.
Since my mother was a frustrated interior decorator, (who now gets to live vicariously through her furniture designer granddaughter) she painted it with an antique-gold paint to jazz it up.
Getting to loll in that gilded bed, though achy with the flu, was a treat.
My mother would bring me Cream O’ Wheat for breakfast and hover over me throughout the day, feeling my forehead and fussing.
And then there was her reliable cure-all…the silver bullet of medicine…God’s gift to mothers everywhere…the magic elixir: a jar of Vicks VapoRub.
My mother is now 91 and I attribute her longevity to her liberal use of Vicks, applied to any area of skin or orifice above the waistline. It didn’t matter that the label on the jar warned against using the product internally. Pish, tosh! That was for sissies.
Mom put it up her nose, in her mouth and globbed big dollops of the stuff into the water of the vaporizer that spewed steam out at me all day and night during respiratory illnesses.
Her refusal to acknowledge the warnings about something she insisted was beneficial also surfaced once during a family dinner years ago.
My brother, an adult by then, told her he couldn’t eat a particular Mexican dish she’d prepared because he was allergic to cilantro. She told him “you’re going to eat it and you’re going to like it” and spun on her heel to return to the kitchen.
I guess we were all lucky that Vicks didn’t turn up somewhere on the menu.
To keep me entertained during my stay in the gilded bed, my mother would dig through our huge comic book collection in the den closet and bring me some choice Donald Ducks or Uncle Scrooges. Also, there were many well-thumbed copies of Reader’s Digest to…well…digest.
They were immensely better than the sad thing being passed off as the Digest now. The old Digests of the 1950s actually had interesting stories and condensed books. My mother-in-law sends us the Digest, so I went through a recent copy and ripped out every ad for pharmaceuticals or weight loss aids just to see what was left. It was pretty pitiful.
Enough to make you sick, if you weren’t already.
The best time I had while ill was when I was around twelve years old. My mother had acquired a copy of the book “The Egg and I” by Betty MacDonald. (A 1947 movie based on the book starred Claudette Colbert, Fred McMurray, Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride.)
I love to read aloud, so my mother sat at the foot of the gilded bed while I read to her. Ma and Pa Kettle were the stand-outs of the story, with their kitchen filled with kids, chaos and roaming chickens.
(Kind of like mine with roaming cats, but we won’t go there.)
One of the Kettles’ many children was a daughter they’d nicknamed “Tits,” but Ma insisted it stood for “sister.” For a twelve year-old this was heady stuff and high humor.
We both rolled around on the bed with laughter throughout the time it took to finish the book, between applications of VapoRub and the shaking out of the sheets so my dad wouldn’t have to sleep on toast crumbs that night.
Laughter is almost as good a medicine as Vicks.
My mother still has that bed, although she has slept in it by herself for the last eleven years since my father died. A few months ago she gave it another coat of antique-gold paint because it was getting worn and patchy in a few spots.
The bed seems so small now, nothing like the luxurious bed of my memory.
And I recently replaced one of her ancient, satin-edged wool blankets that dated all the way back, some fifty-odd years ago, to spending sick days in that bed as a young child. The blanket had become so tattered at the bottom it was almost like tissue paper, it was so thin.
Surprisingly, I experienced a twinge of regret at disposing of the wretched thing. I had some good times lying underneath that blanket with Ma and Pa Kettle, Donald Duck, and my mother.
And a jar of Vicks, of course.