When Her Boys Got a Cold

Oy, Fishele hot genosn—er hot farkilt zikh! (Oh, my Fishl sneezed—he got a cold).


That statement was the start of a routine of rituals that never varied.  Mama’s pattern was totally predictable. 

As we boys got older and tried our futile, youthful rebelling, Mama’s retort was, “S’vet helfn vi a toytn bankes.” (It will help like cupping on a corpse—It’ll do no good).  We soon gave up the complaining and went along with Mama as she went through the following routine.

Mama’s Routine

Step 1Place the Blame.

After pulling the earlobe (I never understood the reasoning behind this step), the following ensued, “You have wet feet.  I told you to wear your galoshes.  You did not wear your heavy jacket.  I told you to dress warmly.”

Mama deathly feared a cold, for she lost her sister Anna, two weeks before Anna was to be married.  It was during the worldwide influenza epidemic when over 500,000 people died in the worst single epidemic the U.S.  has ever encountered.

Step 2.  Go to Bed.

Then Mama checked to see if you had a fever.  Initially, this was done by placing her lips on the sick son’s shtern (forehead).  If it was warm, she had to corroborate it with a thermometer—a big rectal thermometer.  Whenever I sneeze now, I can feel that glass tube painfully going all the way up to my throat. 
I remember begging Mama to use a “mouth thermometer” and her retort was, “Keynmol nisht (Never).” It seems that she had heard about a child that sneezed with a thermometer in her mouth and she bit and broke the thermometer and swallowed the poisonous mercury.

Next came the bedding.  There were extra kishenes (pillows) to prop up the head so the “draining will take place.” Of course there was the usual cotton or wool koldre (blanket)that was now augmented with the perine (featherbed quilt). 

The idea was to shvits, schvits, shvits (sweat, sweat, sweat).  We were threatened with Zeyde coming all the way from Boerum Street in Brooklyn to put on bankes (cupping), if we did not obey all the rules.  I still remember those purple marks on Mama’s back!

The bankes were small and made of thick glass.  Zeyde had them in a brown leather box.  It looked like Sally’s box that holds her mah jongg set.  He would put a drop of alcohol in each banke and rubbed it all around. 

Then, it was lit and the hot banke was placed open end down on Mama’s back.  The idea was to have the heat pull the cold out of the back and cure the patient.  The only result we saw was dark purple marks on Mama’s back.

Step 3.  Drink, Drink, Drink

The drink of hot tea and the lemon rich in vitamin C with honey was very important, but the Gogl-Mogl was Mama’s specialty.  “It is to get your strength back.”

Many years later in reminiscing Mama told me how she made a Gogl-Mogl.  Here were her instructions.   “You heat two glasses of milk until almost boiling.  (We had rich milk from our Swiss cow, Nodgy).  Mix in two tablespoons of honey.  Add two egg yolks, a little bit of cinnamon and last of all a quarter cup of brandy.”

Mama stood by our bed until it was “all done.”

Step 4.  Storytelling Time

This was the only welcome part of the entire series of steps, “If you want to get better and not be sick anymore, you have to do exactly like I tell you.”

Our favorite stories were about how Mama fooled the Cossack soldiers and all about the good German officers who never harmed the Polish civilians.  World War I was very different than the Second World War!

There was a story of a Cossack officer who wanted Mama’s ring and wanted to chop her finger off if she did not give it to him.  Mama jumped out of the window and ran to her uncle and hid in the basement among potatoes sacks until the Germans returned.

There was the story of the trip on the steamship in steerage coming to America.  She had a twenty-dollar bill and she cashed it to buy a candy bar.  Mama was a great storyteller.