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Country at Heart

Using "The Old Farmer's Almanac"

Country at HeartWhen I asked a young drug store sales clerk and if they sell the Almanac, I could tell by the expression on her face that she had no earthly idea what I was talking about. She probably thought I made that up to make her job difficult. Anyway, after I got outside the store, an older clerk (who had overhead the conversation) came running and asked if I was referring to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She was closer to my age and was vaguely familiar with the journal. Perhaps her parents or grandparents used it when she was a child.

I’m aware that not many people (especially those who live in large cities) have ever heard of (nor need) the information that the Almanac contains, as it is intended mostly for rural folks and farmers. Though I live in a metropolitan area, I am still country and still use this annual publication which was a staple in our house just like the Bible.

When I started looking for a dentist, the first thing I thought about was The Old Farmer's Almanac. Since I don’t have one, I used the library’s copy. You might be wondering, "How does anything in that Almanac relate to dentistry?" For me, the answer is simple, but it goes back in time.

Each year while I was growing up, my parents bought The Old Farmer's Almanac. We had our teeth extracted only when the Zodiac chart indicated that the astrological "sign" was in a certain place in the body — I think I said that correctly. Now, you may say, "That's old-fashioned!" Which is fine. We were old-fashioned and believed the heavenly constellations had a direct effect on our minds and bodies. I still adhere to that belief. According to the Almanac, “Ancients believed that the placement of each astrological sign of the Zodiac influenced a specific part of the body.”

The Almanac has a picture of a man with arrows pointing toward different parts of his body, indicating the effect of the sun, moon, and planets on that part of the body. When we had a toothache, my parents checked the Almanac to see where the "sign" was. If it was in the stomach or below (in the thighs, legs, knees, or feet), they took us to the dentist for an extraction. If the sign wasn't "right," (from the head through the heart), we had to wait. If we had a severe toothache, my parents bought Ora-Jel while we waited it out.

As a child, I didn't understand anything about the planets’ influence on the body, and I don't understand the Almanac as well as farmers. But I know that country folks get the weather reports, plant and harvest crops, fish, hunt, start and end projects, destroy pest and weeds, let the cows out to pasture, drain the pond, etc., etc. based on the astrological chart. I made those last two up, but the Almanac does contain information for certain activities based on what is going on in the heavens. So there must be something to it.

Mother wasn't sophisticated enough to understand the differences between astrology and astronomy (and neither am I), but she had enough general knowledge to know the importance of not having a tooth extracted when the astrological "sign" is not in the right position in the body. Plus, the Zodiac signs, the body parts, and the dates are obvious, so there's nothing to figure out about that. And by the way, the Old Farmer’s Almanac is still around, and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere anytime soon!

Old Farmers Almanacs
Photo by Fotolia/Ken Pilon

Childhood Illnesses

Country at HeartI always wonder why children get sick, and that's probably because I was one sickly little girl. Seems like every germ, virus, bacteria, or parasite that came along, they apparently saw my poor, frail body as a likely camping site ... and camped, they did.

Now, what ailed me as a child? Just about everything, but these in particular. Tape worms: My mother made some kind of weird concoction with a taste that I can't describe and with ingredients that I have no earthly idea what they were. However, to make a long story short, whatever was eating my food, this medicine finally poisoned them. Thanks, Mom, for the "whatever" medicine.

I have to make a confession here. I'm not sure that I believed that any kind of food-eating worms ever lived in my intestines, but I know that a lot of Southern kids, especially in poor, rural areas were plagued by these parasites. Supposedly, they eat your food and as a result, the child is always hungry and malnourished. Of course, I was always starved anyway, but to say that I believe I had worms, I'm not sure. I do know that I was always sick in my stomach with something, so, perhaps they were tape worms after all.

Then, there were ring worms. Seems like we're in the "worms camp" on this blog. It's a strange-sounding ailment, but they aren't actual worms like fishing worms. They are round patches of white, flaky, irritated skin that form in a round-ring shape on the scalp. Have no idea what causes it, but at one time, my head was full of them. And, again, Doctor Mom made up some kind of scalp salve or perhaps she bought something or used something that she got from Lucky Heart Cosmetics. Wherever she got her "medicine," its continual use eventually cleared up my scalp.

I've already written about winter sickness such as colds and their accompanying nuisances such as sore throats and runny, stuffy noses,

My tonsils got infected more than I'd like to remember. Have no idea why they did, but there was no remedy for that. I just had to keep my dirty fingers out of my mouth, keep my bald head covered and dry during the winter, and just live with it.

health records
Photo: iStockphoto.com/ScantyNebula

At school, we were given a series of shots. Seems like every time we turned around our teacher told us that the nurse was coming to vaccinate us. I don't think any of us kids looked forward to that. Such an announcement was almost like saying we were going to get the whipping of a lifetime. Actually, the way some of those kids screamed, you would think they were being beaten to death. We called those scaredy cats the “big cry-babies.”

On the other hand, I couldn't figure out why that sweet, gentle nurse, Mrs. Turner, had to stick us with so many needles, but I guess she knew what she was doing. Nevertheless, regardless of how many times she stuck us, she didn't prevent those dreaded yearly colds and other ailments from visiting our house. So I don’t suppose there’s a “stick” for those illnesses. (I’m being facetious; I know those shots were for polio, diphtheria, and whatever national or international plagues were going around that we children were vulnerable to.)

In addition to those unwanted and unplanned colds, seems as though winter’s inclement weather lowered our immune systems and dumped other illnesses on us such as mumps, chicken pox, measles, earaches, and the whooping cough. Normally when we were sick it was during the cooler season when we had to stay inside anyway, so rest, relaxation, and being sheltered helped us stay well.

For earaches, Mother poured warm, sweet oil into our ears. For measles and chicken pox, she oiled our bodies with hot tallow or some other kind of grease so our skin wouldn't itch so badly and instructed us not to scratch so the healed sores wouldn’t leave "craters" on our skin. With those afflictions, we also couldn’t get wet until we were well. Fortunately, none of us have any visible signs of our childhood diseases. I don’t remember that we had smallpox ... We may have, but I’m unaware of that disease attacking us.

For mumps, we ate sardines, then rubbed the oil on our swollen throats. For colds, in addition to other medicines, Dad bought 666 from the drug store. Remember that? Usually, though, we also drank homemade herbal tea made with lemons, peppermint candy, mullein, pine needles, and any weeds from the wild that wouldn’t kill us. For other illnesses, Grandmother made jimsonweed and sassafras teas. Mother also bought Syrup of Black Draught to clean out our clogged, irritated intestines, and boy, did it do a first-class job.

The year I had the whooping cough, Dad bought me some strange-tasting medicine, but eventually I stopped coughing. We used a lots of medicines for our childhood sicknesses, and they came in handy for whatever ailed us. So there you have the history of our sickly little clan.

Winter Home Remedies

Country at HeartAll of us, no matter how healthy, can expect a dreaded visit from that miserable old man, "Mr. Sick," at least once in our lifetime. Unfortunately, he popped up at least once a year at our house, and with so many of us kids one was almost always sick, especially during those long, cold, winter months. So, "Dr. Mom" stayed on the ready with some kind of medicine to remedy our frequent childhood illnesses. My mother didn't believe in going to the doctors' office, so when we got sick, whatever grew out in the fields gave her the herbs that she used for medicine and healing.            

Like clockwork, we kids came down with some kind of malady during inclement weather. Now, this may sound morbid, but I looked forward to sickness more than I looked forward to going to work — sickness was the lesser of the two "evils." And whenever I think about it, it seems like childhood illnesses weren't as taxing on the body as grown-up ailments. That could be because, with the passing of time, I've simply forgotten what it was like to be sick.    

When we caught a cold, that unmerciful demon brought along his hated cousins: chills, fevers, coughs, sore throats, stuffy heads, blocked sinuses, and runny noses. We inhaled camphor for decongestion. We ate Vick's Vapor rub and saturated our little, flat chests with it as well as with hot tallow (cow grease) to help break up the mucus and clear our lungs. But no matter what medicines we took, these unwelcome intruders hung around until they outlived their usefulness. It was as though colds had a time frame, and if the cold's time wasn't up, it didn't leave. The medicine simply eased the symptoms.

Since we kids came down with a cold every winter, Mother was always ahead of the game. With the herbs that she gathered from the woods, she concocted her favorite homemade remedies. One of those bitter, weird-tasting, stomach-gagging concoctions that she forced down our throats for colds was called a "Hot Toddy." The ingredients are a little strange; nevertheless, they were brewed together into a nice, soothing, hot tea that scared away colds and anything else that was tormenting us.

Mom's get-well formulas worked like this: When it was time for that unsavory, slow-pouring castor oil to be administered, the drama began. That liquid had to be force-fed. Mother literally stood over us in a threatening manner before we'd finally "gag" it down. 

Then it came to the "Hot Toddy;" we drank that strong, strange-tasting tea just before turning in, with a verbal warning that no matter how hot and sweaty we got (and believe me, we got summertime-hot under a pile thick, heavy quilts) not to kick the covers off. To do so would expose our body to the room's contrasting cold night air and thus defeat the cure's purpose. If we removed the covers, the "toddy" wouldn't work as well as it should have.

While we sweated in our hot sauna, all of that hot stuff swirling around inside, our system attacked and fought off those tormenting cold germs. In the morning, when we awoke, all the cold came out one way or another. Although we were okay, we still took it easy for a couple of days until our strength returned. Then after that, we were cold-free and good to go. 

Dr. Mom's homemade medicines may be a little hard to swallow, but they're what we reluctantly ingested, and they catapulted us back into the healthy zone. That's why I'm still here to tell you about it.

hot toddy
Photo by Fotolia/Liv Friis-larsen

Wintertime Foods

Country at HeartIn the wintertime, we would not have eaten so deliciously had it not been for my industrious grandmother. She helped us out with canned fruits and vegetables, mostly from her own garden. Sometimes we'd help a neighbor harvest his sweet potatoes or some other fall crops, which they shared with us, but our winter stash came from Grandma's smokehouse

My mother wasn't a "canner," but vaguely I remember eating her pear preserves during the winter. I say winter because pears are a late fall crop, and the only pears that we picked were from a tree that was on an old, abandoned homestead down in the woods. Those are the pears that she canned.

Pears are my least favorite fruit, but I reluctantly ate them — only after the more delicious preserves (like peaches) were long gone. Actually, I think the rest of the family had taste buds similar to mine, because pears were the last canned fruits that were eaten. Or was it because they were canned without sugar? I can't say for sure, but I do know that it was almost spring before the last jars of pear preserves disappeared, which proves that they were low on everybody's "desire" list. Eventually, though, they were eaten.

Our family winter's survival started in the spring (when the first produce was ripe) and ended in late autumn. You know how bears, ants, squirrels, and other creepy-crawly creatures gather and store away their winter harvest in the summer and fall? Well, while they were busy foraging for their meals, Grandmother was busy harvesting from her garden. While the wild animals packed their "finds" into the ground, in tree trunks, or under piles of leaves, Grandma packed her bounty in air-tight Mason jars and stored them away in her smokehouse.

Nuts — though not exactly what I consider food — are gathered in late fall and early winter. They can be stored in cans and buckets and eaten well into springtime and beyond. We had a hickory nut tree and a black walnut tree in our front yard. Those nuts and the few stray pecans that we gathered in the orchard added a little more protein to our otherwise lean, meat diet.

Pears, apples, peaches, watermelon rind preserves, wild plums and berries (from nearby orchards and patches), and anything else that could be gleaned from the woods, vines, bushes, and trees was canned. If something could be eaten, it was.

My grandma canned chicken, pork, and wild game, which we ate mostly at her house. That was fine with us, because Dad "put up" slabs and slabs of fatback, sugar-cured hams, and salted-down pork. We didn't have a smokehouse, pantry, nor shelves on which to store our winter reserves, so our empty back bedroom became our smokehouse.

Since no one slept back there, and since in the wintertime it was refrigerator-cold, that's where we stored anything that needed to be kept cold. And, surprisingly, whatever we stored in that "deep-freezer" was good to eat throughout winter. Thank God for those wonderful and almost miraculous preservatives — salt, sugar, and cold weather. They helped our food (and us) survive during seasons when the weather is too inclement to run around looking for something to eat.

Canned food
Photo by Fotolia/Serjik Ahkhundov

Mealtimes at Grandma's

Country at HeartMealtimes at Grandma’s house were somewhat structured, unlike at ours. Just before we were ready to eat, Grandma called for me to come and "set" the table. I went to the Buffet and pulled out the flatware and plates. This formal table setting was for each meal — no exceptions. We didn't eat on the porch, in the bedroom, or out under a shady tree. Everyone ate at the table, which I guess is the purpose of a kitchen table. I could snack while sitting in the porch swing or in the front room (if it was in the dead of winter), but that was about the extent of my away-from-the-table eating.

I awoke each morning to the smell of strong, black coffee brewing in that hundred-year-old coffee pot. It was the sweetest aroma I'd ever smelled (when it comes to food). When that first whiff of Maxwell House drifted into my bedroom and tickled my nose, I'd hop out of bed, wash up, and make a beeline to the table, ready to chow down.

There awaiting me on the small, four-chair table was a plate piled high with Grandma’s soft, fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth, buttermilk biscuits. Then there was her homemade butter, and before clamping down on those mile-high buns we'd slather each side with butter, layer one side with homemade peach or blackberry preserves, and breakfast was on.

At breakfast, there were only two cups and two saucers set out for coffee — one for each of my grandparents. As much as I drooled over that delicious, hot drink, for whatever reason Grandma wouldn't let me have any. I drank fresh-from-the-cow-milk instead. The cow's milk was also their coffee's creamer.

Usually we had sausage, bacon, wieners, beef steak, pork chops, or fried ham. Of course, scrambled eggs were cooked with a slab of homemade butter or dropped smack-dab into the leftover bacon grease. Breakfast was (and still is) my favorite meal, especially that first morning meal at Grandma Maud's. If it was a school day I'd miss lunch, but supper would be waiting when I got home.

Grandmother was a natural-born cook who made a biscuits mouth-wateringly good. Meals were never carelessly nor thoughtlessly thrown together. Each one was planned ahead and never rushed. She put so much of herself into whatever she made that it was all carefully prepared and well-seasoned with much love. She could probably tell by the way I ate that I thoroughly enjoyed her cooking. Of course, I always had to wash dishes; after such sumptuous dining, dish-washing was "a piece of cake."

biscuit with butter
Photo by Fotolia/Michael Ballard

The Necessity of Quilts

Country at HeartHandmade quilts are works of love and a long, laborious task. I never had the patience to quilt. After watching my Grandmother work on a single quilt for what seemed like years, I passed on the opportunity to learn the craft. (I have no idea how long it took to make a quilt, but I know it didn’t take her as long as I thought it did. I was a child, and that was the way my mind computed it.)

Many rural houses back then didn’t have gas or electric heating. Like ours, some didn’t even have a heater in rooms other than the front (main) room. For those who slept in heater-less rooms, we needed heavy bed tops. Not only that, but during the winter — even if there was a heater in a room — it seldom burned all night. People didn’t have fuel for that, so the quilts were our heaters. Once we got into bed and pulled a couple of covers on top, we were good to go. We slept through the night, unless we had to get up to “potty.”

Even though he needed those quilts, whenever Grandmother's had her quilting frame up it was an inconvenient intrusion on my space and freedom of movement. I was envious of the space that oversized contraption occupied in the living room. It was like an unwanted guest who not only overstayed her welcome, but who also competed for Grandma's time and attention.

That "elephant" was an ever-present nuisance, especially if it was winter and I couldn't sit on the porch or roam around outside. My grandmother, grandfather, and I had to sit around that larger-than-life-frame. I couldn't wait until she either took it down or I went home. However, when I went home, came back, and the frame was down, I sauntered into my bedroom for a nice surprise: Grandma’s latest creation was sprawled across the bed. Then I pinched myself for being selfish, 'cause after all, I was a guest in her house, even if the quilting frame was too close for comfort!

Quilt
Photo by Fotolia/melnikofd

Grandmother's Quilts

Country at HeartDuring this time of the year — when we turn on the heat and put extra covers on the bed — my mind travels back to my childhood when we pulled out the quilts, fluffed them up, aired them out, and put them on the bed. Now that process may sound simple, but it didn't start with pulling them out from wherever we stored them.

That quilting thing started in Grandma’s house, perhaps years before we ever saw a quilt. She always kept a cardboard box with scraps from her old, worn-out aprons (if they weren’t soiled or torn to shreds), old clothes (dresses, shirts, skirts, blouses, denim blue jeans), flour and meal sacks, old sheets, strips of leftover fabric, and old handkerchiefs. Some of those items may be exaggerated, but quilts were indeed made from any salvageable fabric that could be sewn together.

Some of that stuff I definitely would have sent to the incinerator or tossed in the fireplace, but luckily Grandmother saw something in those rags that I didn’t. Women who quilt today (including me) use mostly new, store-bought fabric; Grandmother used whatever she could get her hands on. I remember her seemingly forever picking up little-bitty pieces of fabric and meticulously sewing them onto one another. Most quilters use an electric sewing machine; my grandmother had an old-fashioned pedal machine. However, I don’t recall her using it to stitch her quilts. She quilted an even more old-fashioned way — by hand. By the time she finished stitching everything, it came out as a beautiful, practical, much-needed comforter — another one of her masterpieces.

My mother never made quilts, so the ones we received came from Grandmother. I’m not sure what kind of batting (padding) went inside, but, boy, were those quilts heavy! Unless it was an extremely cold night, we only needed one ... two if you wanted to be sure you wouldn’t feel any draft whatsoever. Those handmade quilts were so thick and heavy that it just about took all three of us girls to raise them up so we could get out of the bed in the morning!

Sewing a quilt
Photo by Fotolia/chairboy