Medical Folklore


Recently, while sorting writing from my past, and I found papers I wrote for a variety of collage classes in the 90s. I have no idea how these papers survived a multitude of moves during my 20s and 30s or my last several years on the road, but there they were.

Most weren’t very interesting. Most were written in that overly academic style required in the university arena. Most were deposited in the recycling bin.

One was interesting, however.  Written in 1993 for an anthropology class, it was called “Testimonies in Medical Folklore.” I didn’t really do anything to make it interesting. I just transcribed the stories told to me by my mother, my father, and my friend’s mother. Like a good anthropologist, I collected and reported. I didn’t comment upon anything I was told. I suppose the assignment didn’t require commentary.

What strikes me now is the ages of my “informants” who were my parents and my friend’s mother. They were 44-49, in the age group my friend and I belong to now. We were so young, in our early 20s, and our parents seemed ancient. Now i realize our parents weren’t as elderly as we thought they were, and my friend and I were just babies.

Today I’ll share these stories of medical folklore, as they were told to me.

I described “Informant #1” (my mother) as “a forty-four year old Caucasian woman.” (I’m not sure why I didn’t describe her as “Cajun” as I did my father. My mother was just as Cajun as he was. Perhaps I was trying to hide the fact that I hadn’t gone very far from home to gather information.)

[This event] happened to my…daughter when she was six months old. I went to visit her grandmother…and the aunt of my mother-in-law was there and when she saw [the baby], she insisted that thunder or some other loud noise had separated the bones in [the baby’s] head, that the soft spot was opening. So, she said that she would pray over [the baby]. In other words, treat her. I didn’t see anything wrong with it because she wasn’t going to be giving any medicine or they weren’t going to do anything strange to her besides the old woman was going to put her hand on [the baby’s] head and say prayers. So, I agreed to let the lady do this. She prayed and put her hands on [the baby’s] head and then when she was done she [said] that [the baby’s] head would heal. I didn’t notice any change. It satisfied the old lady, and I didn’t figure it would hurt [the baby]…

After this happened and I was sharing this experience with my mother, she told me that when she was growing up her grandmother would sew caps for babies…She would make a white cap and a black cap, and they believed that the baby should wear the white cap during the daytime. At night they would put the black cap on the baby and also in thunderstorms to protect the baby’s head from separating…

This was something that was not new to my mother, she had heard this before, so maybe something had happened to [the baby], but I was taking her to the doctor for her checkups, and the doctor never said that her bones were separating in her head…

Something else…In 1970, I was pregnant for my first child. My husband worked with this man, his wife was also pregnant…These people…were black…When the woman had the baby, she had a son, and so once she came home from the hospital, they invited us to go over and see their baby. When we got to their home her grandmother was at the house outside and the old woman was very shocked to see us get there. I thought it might have been because we were white, that it surprised her that we were going to visit to see the black baby. I went in and went to the crib and looked at the baby and held its hand and talked to the mother and the visit probably lasted about ten or fifteen minutes and we left.

Later that afternoon, I got a call at home that they needed a piece of the dress that I was wearing. This was a surprise to me, but my husband and the father of the little boy came over to the house and cut the hem out of the dress that I was wearing to take back to the house where the baby was. The old grandmother took the piece of fabric and cut strips and tied a strip of the fabric on each of the baby’s wrists. Supposedly, what we were told was that when I went to the crib, the baby, sensing that I was pregnant, had started to strain as if he was in the birth canal again and continued straining and holding its breath until this cloth was tied around its wrist. I don’t know how true this is, if it was the old woman’s imagination…After this happened…I mentioned it to my mother-in-law, my mother, and other elderly people…and it was not a surprise to them, they all said that they had heard of stories before…

I described “Informant #2 (my father) as “a forty-seven year old Cajun, Caucasian male.”

When we were young kids and we got warts–that was before you’d go to the doctor and have them removed either by burning or surgically removing them…My mother’s uncle who lived across the street…would treat you for them. In French it’s called “traiteur.” And he would take you and get you off by yourself…and he would meditate and prayer [secret prayers passed down from generation to generation] and while he was praying he would just continue making a circle around and around the wart very slowly…with his finger and it would take about between ten and fifteen minutes and he did that three days in a row. And the wart would, after those three treatments, the wart would gradually start to reduce in size and shrink and shrink and shrink until it would just disappear…

When I was a young boy I used to get what’s called a sunstroke. I’d get out in the sun without a hat and you would run fevers, have cold chills, at least I would, tremendous headaches, just feel like your head was going to explode. And you could also be treated for that. A gentleman that used to live next door to my grandmother would treat you and he would treat you with water, he would use water, sprinkle water on your forehead and also put his hand on your head and pray and that would get rid of the headache. It didn’t really work that well for me the way he did it, but it did help.

And then i was told by someone else about a Mr. H who treated for that. He had a grocery store…about a mile from the house, and when I’d get a sunstroke I’d get on my bicycle and ride over to the grocery store and the man would take me into the stockroom, turn out all the lights, and place both of his hands on my head, pray in the dark for me, and believe it or not, when I’d leave there [and] go back outside from the grocery store, my headache was completely gone, the fever and chills were gone. He only treated me about three or maybe four times at the most, and I’ve never had a sunstroke since…

I described “Informant #3 (my friend’s mother) as “a forty-nine year old Caucasian woman.” I went on to explain, “The events she relayed to me over the phone…were told to her by her husband and his relatives who grew up in Croatia.”

When my husband was a child living in a poor, rural area of Croatia, they wouldn’t go to the doctor and have their tonsils taken out if they had tonsillitis. If their tonsils swole up, they would take some wool–there was always wool in the house because they raised sheep–and they would wrap the wool around their neck to help the tonsils get better…

My sister-in-law’s mother came from Croatia to visit last year. While she was here, my sister-in-law told me that every day her mother would take plain yogurt and chop garlic and parsley really, really fine and mix it all together and eat it. When my sister-in-law asked her what she was doing, her mother said she was eating the mixture to treat her high blood pressure…

My same sister-in-law went to Croatia a few years ago to visit with her young son. While they were there, the son got a fever and my sister-in-law didn’t have any medicine…An old lady in the village told her to get potatoes and slice them and put the slices on the balls of her son’s feet and this would pull the fever out. She was warned not to put the potatoes on his head because that would pull the fever up and possibly give him meningitis. The potatoes had to be put on his feet so the fever would be pulled down and out of his body. I’ve never tried it, but she said it worked, that the potatoes shriveled up as if they had been cooked and my nephew’s fever went away…

I got an A- on the assignment.

About Blaize Sun

I live in my van, which makes me a rubber tramp. I like to see places I’ve never seen before, and I like to visit the places I love again and again.

I like to play with color. I make collages and hemp jewelry and cheerful winter hats. I take photographs and (sometimes, not in a long time) write poetry. All of those things make me an artist.

Although I like to spread joy and to make people laugh, my wit can be sharp. I try to stay positives in all situations, to find the goodness in all people. But I often feel compelled to point out bullshit when I smell it.

I like to have fun, to dance, to eat yummy food, to sit by a fire and share stories. I want to know what people hold dear and important, not just make surface small talk.

This blog is a way for me to share stories. This blog is made up of my stories, rants, and observations, as well as my photographs.

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