Globe and Mail

My mother-in-law’s home remedies are absolutely foul. And work like a charm


The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, May. 08 2013, 1:17 PM EDT

I know grown men who, when sick, cry out for their mothers. But my husband begs: “Please, whatever you do, don’t call Mom!”

I’m not sure what scares him more: her showing up with a bag full of foul-tasting home remedies, or the fact that the remedies always work. They do. The fouler they taste and smell, the more effective they are.

And now his cough is dragging on, keeping the whole household awake at night. I have to phone his mother.

“Boil some ginger, some garlic, some honey and some apple-cider vinegar,” Mom instructs, passing on a remedy for her son’s bad cold. She uses the no-nonsense tone I imagine her using with junior colleagues before she retired from her beloved profession, nursing.

I never wanted to be a nurse, and I don’t know the first thing about making home remedies, either.

“How much ginger and garlic?” I ask. “And what were the two other things?”

“Why don’t you get a pen and paper and I’ll tell you,” Mom suggests.

You’d think I would know this recipe by heart. I’ve heard it before. But Mom is full of recipes, most made from Jamaican, African or Middle Eastern ingredients with unspellable names, and I dread this almost as much as her son does.

“Grate some ginger.”

“How much?”

She thinks a moment. “About a tablespoon,” she says.

“Is that before or after it’s grated?” I ask.

Mom sighs, the sigh of one who never gets used to the fact that her intelligent, accomplished daughter-in-law is secretly an idiot.

“It’s about an inch or so of peeled ginger,” she says patiently.

It’s the “or so” that always gets me. I want exact measurements.

“About the same amount of garlic,” she continues. “Grated.”

Next, she tells me the correct amount of honey and cider vinegar needed. I read the ingredients back to her and ask: “And then what?”

“You put it in a small pot, and simmer together on low heat till they’re all mixed together nicely.”

I’m about to ask how you know when it’s “mixed together nicely,” but Mom’s read my mind already.

“You’ll know when it’s ready from the smell,” she says. “It smells very strong.… Then you wait till it cools a bit, and give him a tablespoon, and another tablespoon before bed. Let him keep taking it till it’s finished.”

I thank her, and joke: “Well, Mom – at least this time I know every ingredient in the remedy. And it’s all healthy stuff.”

She laughs, and declares, “You young people don’t know anything. Every remedy I give you is made from healthy stuff.”

I set to work immediately. Garlic, ginger, honey and cider vinegar are ingredients I always have on hand.

I watch the golden-brown liquid simmering in the pot, giving off vapours that stink up the whole kitchen. Mom’s right: It’s a very strong smell. It floats ahead of me as I enter the bedroom. My husband dives under the covers at the first whiff and pretends to be asleep.

“You have to take this,” I coax. But he doesn’t emerge from under the thick, downy comforter. He’s playing turtle. Or possum. Or something dead. But I’m not having any of it.

“I know you’re awake,” I say. “I just saw you sitting up in bed a few seconds ago.”

I bend over him, holding the tablespoon and mug of potion cradled on a saucer with upturned edges. It’s extra protection against spills. This stuff doesn’t only smell and taste awful, it looks as if it might stain anything it touches. But I’m convinced it’s good for him. Mom’s “meds” always work.

It takes long minutes for him to peep out from under the bed cover, checking to make sure the danger is past. But I’m still standing there.

“Go away!” he whispers in what sounds weirdly like both an order and pathetic begging. I stand my ground. He tries another tack. “Leave it here on the bedside and I’ll take it when I’m ready.”

He’s almost whimpering, now, but I am unmoved. All the store-bought medication has failed. It’s come to this. I have to administer the potion myself, because I don’t trust him to do it. I dip the spoon into the still-warm liquid and tell him to sit up so I can bring the spoon to his lips.

“Open your mouth,” I say. Speaking those words reminds me of the many times our children refused to take their medicine or eat Brussels sprouts.

He opens his mouth, glaring at me and the spoon the whole time. And makes the most awful grimace I’ve ever seen on a human face. “What the hell is this?” He demands. “It’s horrible!”

No argument there, I think. But this patient does not need sympathy. He just needs to tough it out and take his medicine.

Two days later, he starts to recover. The cough is less frequent, less violent, less loud.

“You’re improving!” I say, delighted. But the man has a one-track mind and it leads straight to mother.

“Don’t tell her! Don’t tell her it worked.”

“But she needs to know that it worked. She’s been so concerned.”

I start for the phone on a small table across the room. He grabs my arm, pleading.

“It’ll only encourage her,” he says. “She’ll never let me forget it. And the next medicine is going to taste 10 times worse!”

I don’t mean to laugh, but I can’t help myself. I sit on the bed, pat his leg and laugh.

“Glad someone thinks it’s funny,” he says petulantly.

I kiss him on the cheek and go to call his mother.

Cynthia Reyes lives near Toronto.


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