The boy was trouble. You could see that as he pushed through the door, then came stomping past the booths in the Huddle House in his toddler-size cowboy boots. He was wearing a strawberry-jelly scowl, his shirt had ridden up his belly, and his hands, which I am sure were sticky, were touching everything. His tired mother noticed, too late, that he was on the lam, and caught up with him just about the time he made it to our booth. His round cheeks were red—it was clear he had a cold—and he sneezed and then coughed a good-bye as he was dragged away.
"Reminds me of you," my brother Sam said over his ham-and-cheese omelet. My mother nodded.
"You was bad to get colds," she said, and watched as the boy went, protesting, up the aisle. She loves boys.
Well let's hope, I thought to myself, they don't treat his ailment the same way my people treated mine. If they do, the poor child will be as tight as Dick's hatband by time for beddy-bye.
They called it, oddly, a toddy. Their homemade remedies for the cold, flu, and croup varied a little, depending on which grandparents were mixing the concoctions, but the active ingredient was always the same. It required, to start, a few tablespoons of corn whiskey, which some people—but nobody I know who'd ever had any—called moonshine. Hooch was more like it. Busthead. Popskull. There wasn't anything nice about it.
Into the glass the old women of the family squeezed a lemon, if they had one; lemons were dear in the foothills of the Appalachians in those days, for mill workers and pulpwooders and roofers. Then, they stirred in a tablespoon of golden honey.
If there was no honey, they took a hammer and broke off a big chunk of peppermint candy and let it melt in the glass. Sometimes, if the child coughed loud enough and their hearts broke and their fear rose, they would place the chunk of peppermint in the toe of a white sock and bash it with the hammer, or just swing it against a post on the porch. It melted quicker that way, beat to dust.
I remember once they gave this medicine to my brother Sam.
He said he did not remember it.
"I reckon so," I said.
He does remember he went to sleep.
My mother recalls there was giggling.
I do remember the first time they gave it to me. I am not sure how old I was, but I was in school, so had to have been at least 6. The peppermint did not do the job, and the corn whiskey burned a hole from my lips to my lower intestine, but, oh, what a wonderful feeling it was when the fire went out. The world went soft. The world turned gold. I floated. I flew into the dark. Moonshine. I get it now.
I know they would not have hurt us for anything in the world. Nothing was more precious, to these people who worked so hard with their hands for so little, than their babies. They simply used what they had.
I am glad that little boy in the Huddle House lives in a more enlightened time, but maybe just a little sorry too.