Close Encounters of the Herbalist Kind

Posted by Rachel Y. Hill on

I can think of countless things that might have mortified me, when I was a child.  For example, my brother Michael, sitting on top of me and farting.  Or maybe it was my Uncle Vernon always chasing me and my siblings with a wig-head he called “Morrow”, on a broomstick.  If we really want to get gross, try getting kissed by a boy nicknamed “Butter” because his dental hygiene was questionable.  That list goes on, I promise you that.  However, I am blessed to have outlived these atrocities and even grown to appreciate some of them.  Here goes my story.  Like to hear it?  Here it goes!

My grandmother was an herbalist in her own right.  She didn't have a degree, but she could cut a fever with peach leaves (like nobody's business!!!)  She would teach me about vegetables from the community garden and herbs that grew in the yard, so I could make medicine.  I didn't realize what a treasure she was until she was gone and the memories began to flood my mind, with all the rich experiences I was having in my herbal studies.  My memories of my Grandma Odessa revolved around her amazing culinary skills.  I also remember her for the good and bad side of winter she passed on to my parents.   I’ll give you the good side first.  She made a cough syrup out of Jack Daniels Whiskey, that would make me want to pretend like I was sick every day of the school year!  Winter couldn’t get her soon enough, before I began to feel a little peaked, flushed, feverish, etc.  and started to cough my little heart out.  I should have won an Oscar for those performances.  Her concoction was a Jack Daniels, honey, sugar reduction that was canned with lemon peels, purple onions, and garlic.  If lemon peels, onions, and garlic sound gross to you, anything that lives in a jar of honey for several months gets candied and will taste delicious before it is all said and done.  This was the good side of winter.   

The bad side of Winter started around Thanksgiving and ended around Christmas when two geese (or more) had to sacrifice their lives and give up the fat from their carcass to make a salve I have grown to know as “Goose Grease”. I guess it was worse for the geese and I should be grateful.  Long story short, the fat was collected off the geese that got cooked during the holiday meals, a little aromatherapy fragrance was added (if you were lucky), and finally, poured into an old Jiffy or Skippy peanut butter jar for storage. This remedy was divided between my grandmother’s sons and daughter and sent home to treat her grandchildren (like myself) when the need would arise.  That need did arise and when it did, I hated it with all my heart, because my mother would slick me down from the “rooter to the tooter”.  I felt like I was a glow worm because I was so shiny.  Did I mention I smelled like something I couldn’t describe (probably a baked goose)?  I would have these weird thoughts that I would eventually grow feathers and fly away from my torture.  But then, eventually my mother gave me the Jack Daniel’s cough syrup, and all was forgiven.

Did the “Goose Grease” work or not?  I don’t know (I was too grossed out to remember), but it has been a remedy for many years in my family.  The fat served as a carrier oil, while the aromatherapy oils like peppermint, rosemary, camphor, and eucalyptus were infused to bring respiratory benefits that help with congestion and coughs.  I still make “Goose Grease” to this day, minus the geese of course.  Grandma Odessa’s memory, her love, and her intentions still live on through her herbal medicine.  Whether it is cough medicine, “goose grease”, or her Avon Skin-So-Soft, she was going to rub you down or fix you up with something.  I can tell you how much I am looking forward to some grandchildren that I can rub down like cute, greased little squiggly, piggies, and make them shiny like bike reflectors!

Grandmother Odessa 

I smile to think of what they used
To help us kids survive,
But I am “going on” 69
And very much alive.
My sorest throats were eased, and I
Still hold no bit of rancor
To think of sucking sugar lumps
With a drop or two of camphor.

And camphor mixed with goose grease for
A winter chest congestion;
Baking soda cleaned my teeth
And helped my indigestion.
Because of Mother’s tender heart
I hereby sing a Gloria!
She never gave me castor oil,
Just syrupy Castoria.

Salt for all mosquito bites,
Cobwebs on the scratches,

The sickroom fumigated with
Our sulphur kitchen matches.
Somehow there’s quite a bunch of us
That never had a shot,
But here we are still kicking
And enjoying it a lot.

– Author Unknown