From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul

Garlic Tales

When I remember my mother, I picture her in the kitchen concocting some potent remedy. She couldn’t read or write, but her head was crammed with a thousand years of folk wisdom from the old country. In her eyes, Mala-ha-muvis, the angel of death, was always trying to strike us kids with childhood diseases. She was in a constant struggle with the evil one. There was no way he could win against my mother and her potions. The only trouble for us was that all her remedies smelled of garlic!

“Here, gargle with this and swallow it.”

“But Ma,” I’d yell, “it’s garlic and junk. My breath will smell.”

“So? You have a sore throat. Gargle! Mala-ha-muvis can’t stand the smell either.”

Of course, the next day the symptoms were gone. It was always that way. Crushed garlic compresses for a fever. Poultices of garlic, cloves and pepper for a runny nose or a toothache. Some families smelled like Lifebuoy soap, but not us. We always smelled like goulash.

With each dose of her homemade antibiotics, Mama muttered secret chants to ward off the evil eye, while we listened to the mystical sounds and tried to guess what they meant. While this may sound overly superstitious, lots of families in our neighborhood were this way, only with a different ethnic twist. My pal Ricci had tea bags, loaded with Italian herbal “medicine,” sewn into his shirts—what a whiff! And my Greek friend, Steve, had Bull Durham tobacco bags stashed all over his body. “Lucky amulets,” he called them.

Long before the miracles of modern medicine, all the members of our melting pot had their own cures. Can you imagine 35 ripe kids crammed into a classroom, with those curative aromas wafting through the air? God, what a smell! It drove our fifth-grade teacher, Miss Harrison, up the wall. Tears often welled up in her eyes—from the odors or from frustration, I never knew.

“Tell your mothers to stop rubbing you down with garlic,” she would shout at us, dabbing her nose daintily with a lace handkerchief. “I can’t stand the smell! Do you understand?”

Apparently, Miss Harrison didn’t belong to an ethnic group that subscribed to folk medicine. We smelled nothing to get excited about.

But when polio struck, and my mother met her enemy Mala-ha-muvis head-on, even I couldn’t stand the smell of her new secret weapons. Each of us got three linen bags, stuffed with garlic, camphor and God-knows-what, on a rope around the neck. This time, Miss Harrison called a truce with her smelly kids and just opened the windows a little wider. And sure enough, Mama beat the evil one to the draw; none of us came down with the dreaded disease.

Only once in her life did Mama’s artillery fail her. My brother Harry was stricken with diphtheria, and this time the garlic cure didn’t work. So she had to pull a different kind of trick from up her sleeve. Harry was gasping for breath, when all of a sudden my mother told us to pray very loudly for David ’s life.

“Who’s David, Ma?” we asked.

“That’s David lying in the bed.”

“No, Ma, that’s Harry.” We thought she had lost her mind. She grabbed us and said in a loud voice, “That’s David, understand?” Then, in hushed tones, she explained, “We’ll fool the Mala-ha-muvis. If he thinks it’s David, he’ll leave our Harry alone. Speak very loudly when I tell you to.”

We listened intently as she spoke to the evil one, the angel of death.

“Mala-ha-muvis,” she said, “listen to me. You have the wrong little boy. That’s David in the bed. We have no Harry in this house. Go away! Leave David alone! You have made a mistake!”

Then she motioned to us, and we all started to shout together, “Mala-ha-muvis, it’s true! It’s true! We have no brother Harry. This is our brother David. It’s David,Mala–ha-muvis!

As we pleaded for our brother’s life, Mama chanted in a combination of Yiddish and all the other languages that she remembered from her past. Over and over, she repeated her chants. All through the night, we three frightened little souls stayed awake, pleading a case of wrong identity to the angel of death.

David lived. That’s right—I said David. From that day on, the name Harry disappeared forever from our little universe. Superstitious? Why take a chance?

Over the years, we all grew up, left the tenements, and educated ourselves. Mama more or less stopped practicing medicine. Then, when I was 47, I was struck with a heart attack. What a look of relief on the nurse’s face when Mama’s first visit ended and she left my hospital room.

“What a smell! Is it garlic?” the nurse asked. I, of course, smelled nothing. But when I felt under the pillow, there they were, sure enough. Three linen bags on a rope, filled with garlic, camphor and some other stuff.

Mike Lipstock

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