Short stories, Travel and Health Information
I distinctly remember as a seven year old asking my mother whether the old lady was actually A Witch.
After all these many years I can still recall her sharp wrinkled face – and the long, lace-collared brown dress she used to wear with brightly coloured socks and a stout pair of laced-up men’s leather shoes.
She – an awful old lady called Mrs. Schokman who lived next door to us – used to haunt my childhood dreams, because whenever one of us neighbourhood children happened to be complaining about some minor ailment, she would pop her nose around the hibiscus hedge separating our gardens, and suggest some strange, suspicious -sounding remedy for a quick cure.
“The best thing for a scald,” she once observed solicitously, seeing me with a large bandage on my arm after I had successfully upset a saucepan of boiling water over it, “is to spread some bee’s honey on the wound and keep it covered for a few days. It will heal without leaving a scar – go and tell your mother I told you so.”
I did convey this advice to my mother who simply smiled and murmured, “That’s just an old wives’ tale.” My dear mother, having been well trained in First Aid in the Ceylon Girl Guides, carefully cleaned the scalded area each morning (with antiseptic and without anaesthetic) before applying some yellow ointment and a gauze dressing. In a few weeks the scald had healed beautifully – so I never did get to find out the efficacy or otherwise of Mrs. Schokman’s remedy.
On another occasion, it took me a fair amount of struggling to escape having a soggy, lukewarm clove of garlic poked into my ear after I had unwisely confided to Mrs. Schokman that I was having an earache. ‘This will make you well in no time,” she cackled, gripping my bony shoulder firmly while I wriggled wildly to escape.
In those days, like any well brought up boy attending one of Sri Lanka’s traditional Anglican schools I used to say my prayers faithfully each night. I must confess that my prayers were not requests that God cure Mrs. Schokman of her obvious insanity and her involvement in witchcraft – but that she would be struck down dead. If this was too much to ask, I pleaded with God, then at least make her move somewhere far away from us – to Trincomalee or Matara or Kandy or Melbourne – or perhaps even to far off Holland from where her ancestors had originally invaded Sri Lanka a few hundred years ago.
Looking back with the wisdom that accrues with middle age, however, it now seems that I was very wrong in my childhood views about Mrs. Schokman. Far from being a wicked witch, I have to belatedly acknowledge that she was a woman more far-sighted than Prometheus.
When I look through the latest medical journals, for example, I find prescriptions just as strange as bees’ honey for burns and just as unpleasant as earplugs of stewed garlic.
In days gone by, when sophisticated mothers were treating their constipated children with laxatives of varying severity (Constipation being defined as the inability to do poos in the toilet as often as the child next-door), women like Mrs. Schokman were advising their children and grandchildren to eat more papayas and plantains to keep their bowels open regularly. Today, doctors have a hard time persuading patients who want to pop laxatives with every meal to eat things like bananas and beans instead. Of course these are now described as “High Fibre Foods”- which makes them acceptable to people who would have scoffed at old Mrs. Schokman. After all “High Fibre Foods” sounds so much more modern and scientific.
Even the humble garlic bulb has been vindicated by medical research – so if you have been in the habit of swallowing cloves of garlic every day and emitting garlic fumes from every pore, be exonerated. Today’s scientists confidently inform us that garlic contains Allicin, a substance that helps to prevent those bloody clots that block the coronary artries and cause heart attacks.
As for bees’ honey – no less an authority than the British Journal of Surgery some years ago published an article describing what happens when bees’ honey was applied as a dressing for burns. The results were even better than standard burn ointments!
I find it extremely gratifying as I get older to find modern medical research proving many of those old wives’ tales of my childhood to be not so dubious after all.
I believe with the wisdom of hindsight that I owe Mrs Schokman an apology.
And the dear old lady, in whatever corner of heaven she is at this moment, must be looking down and chuckling to herself.
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