The winters in Western New York have always been fierce. I can remember snow drifts up to our waist on the way to elementary school. I can't say that my mother sent us to school with a potato in our pocket to keep us warm but she did send us to school bundled up from head to toe. In those days it meant zip-up rubber boots, better known as galoshes; knee-high socks or pants under the required dress or skirt that was the dress code back then; heavy wool coats and a warm hats for all of us or in my case, a wool scarf tied tightly under my chin, Polish style. She was fanatic about keeping our heads and ears warm. There was no arguing with her about this, something she adhered to until the end of her life. She even gave her advise freely to strangers like the time we were coming out of Kresge's one windy, summer day. Just outside the door she spots a young mom with a baby in a stroller THAT DIDN'T HAVE A HAT ON! On seeing this my mother walks up to the young mom and in her broken English tells her nicely that the baby should have a hat on to protect its head and eyes and ears. I was so embarrassed that she was promoting her agenda on other people's babies but she remained unmoved by my agitation. "She's very young, " she calmly says to me, "maybe she doesn't have a mom to tell her these things."
Rain or snow we wore galoshes over our shoes. Feet were not to get wet or cold. Nobody walked barefoot or just in socks in the house during winter, including my father. She darned any holes in our socks, everybody got slippers for Christmas and they were to be worn at all times in the house. Nothing could shake her conviction that the body needs to be kept warm from head to toe, both outside and inside: a hot breakfast; hot buttered toast; hot milk was better than cold milk and even hot, very weak coffee, laced with plenty of milk and sugar was part our fare before we went off to school.
We did as she demanded (and I'm not using the word loosely here) because there were penalties if we got sick. Hard to say which of her homemade remedies was the worst but the collective memory of all of us kids was that they were, without a doubt, bad. First there was the cod liver oil, something she learned in the Displaced Person (DP) camps after the war. When the war ended, Polish men, women and children were suffering from malnutrition and tuberculosis. Besides food and penicillin, children received doses of cod-liver oil, rich in fat soluble Vitamins A and D to promote proper bone growth and development as well as healthy eyes. She gave it to us as a preventative, just in case. It came as a liquid in a glass bottle and it stunk. On cod liver oil day we had to line up at the kitchen sink and using what I always felt to be an oversized spoon, one that she kept only for cod liver oil dispensing, we got regular doses of it throughout the winter. Immediately after we swallowed our dose, we each received a small piece of bread with a little bit of salt sprinkled on top. Don't ask me. I don't have an answer as to why, but after that cod liver oil, it was something to look forward to.
Then there was the onion syrup remedy for coughs and colds - universally acknowledged to be avoided at all cost. Raw onions were chopped fine, placed in a jar, mashed and ponded to release the juice and a generous amount of sugar was added. It was pretty vile but take it we did. My mother was not the type to care whether we wanted something or not. But if I'm looking for any lasting trauma from the experience, it has to be that I don't care for raw onions to this day.
The hot beer remedy was for the flu that went around every winter. In a saucepan she heated half a bottle of beer. She beat the yolk of an egg with a couple of teaspoons of sugar until smooth and then whisked it into the beer until it kind of foamed up. All nice and hot she brought it to your bed where you were lying under the pierzyna (staying, of course, warm) and made to drink every drop. Not as dreadful as the others, mind you, but hot cocoa would have been better. She fluffed up the pierzyna to better amass it over you and commanded "Stay under there until you've sweated." And sweat we did. You really do learn how our feathered friends stay warm in winter once you've slept under goose down. When we woke up from our alcohol-induced, goose feather-sweating sleep, we felt better.
A very healthy and happy 2017 to everyone!
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.