GRANDFATHER’ S SPRING TONIC
“In March, April, and May, take Blank’s Sarsaparilla 100 Doses, One Dollar!
Cures That Tired Feeling!”
“Pooh Fiddlesticks!” Grandfather muttered, and rolled up the newspaper to give his knees a powerful slap as if swatting a fly. It was the afternoon of Town Meeting Day, and Grandfather had been mentally devouring every word of the county newspaper–Republican in politics–which he had picked up at the post office on his way home from town meeting, yes, devouring it down to the bitter stubble of the patent medicine advertisements, and had read that last one aloud to Grandmother.
It was right in line with the subject they had been discussing that very morning, spring tonic–a subject they always discussed on the morning of Town Meeting Day. Of course Grandfather knew nothing of calories, and even less, if that were possible, of vitamins.
If those words, now so common, had been mentioned in his hearing, he might have thought that somebody had discovered new species of wild animals in the Pond Woods. Just the same, he had a stout conviction that in the spring o’ the year one should take a spring tonic. As to what that tonic should be he had ideas all his own, and would take advice from no body, not even Grandmother. To be sure, he shared with her the annual course of sulphur and molasses, of about a week’s duration, with all the solemn devotion characteristic of a churchman’s observation of Lent.
That accomplished, Grandfather went his way and Grandmother, hers, in as much disagreement as to what a proper spring tonic should be as Jack Sprat and his wife might have been, had they not been a most amiable couple, over the question of the Sunday roast. Grandfather was a creature of habit. He did thus and so because he “always did,” or refused to do thus and so because he “never did.” Just when he started to do or not to do, of his own volition, I have not the slightest idea but on a certain March day–I’ll wager it was Town Meeting Day–some sixty-odd years before I made his acquaintance, he brewed himself a tonic of wild cherry bark and hard cider, and every spring thereafter he repeated the process. Not that Grandfather was ignorant of the alleged curative qualities of other spring tonics, both home-made and commercial. Grandmother was wont to pester him with information concerning the potency of her various and sundry concoctions of smartweed, catnip, spearmint, thoroughwort, and a dozen other fragrant herbs which she had cured the previous summer, stored away in paper bags, neatly labeled, and hung in picturesque rows ,from attic rafters. And as for patent medicines–well, we’ve already seen what Grandfather thought of them. It was, as I have said, the afternoon of Town Meeting Day, so Grandfather got into action.
Into the pantry he sprightly tripped and drew out of hiding in a dark corner of a little-used shelf a certain bottle, tall, big necked, octagonal in shape (or was it hexagonal?) with Gothic-like panels or windows on its several sides. Its capacity must have been at least two quarts, perhaps three.
It was a bottle sacred to Grandfather. No profane hands ever touched it except to dust the shelf. He pulled out the huge stopple and thrust his nose well within the neck to determine if perchance he might detect a suggestion of mustiness lurking far within its spacious depths. Then he hustled over to the kitchen sink, gave the bottle a vigorous rinsing, and placed it on the back of the kitchen table with a touch-it-not thud. But the Gothic bottle was not the only article sacred to Grandfather in the manufacture of spring tonic; there was also an ax that nobody else touched, hidden away in the clothes-closet, behind the long tails of Grandfather’s Sunday–go-to-meetin’ black broadcloth. By this ~ yo~ Ql(ave the idea that Grandfather was selfish.
He was nothing of the sort, and to prove it let me say that he had another ax which he generously loaned to any Tom, Dick, or Harry to use as he would.
There were times, however, when Grandfather wanted an ax when he wanted it, and he wanted it sharp; and he didn’t want to search the whole farm only to be told that a careless hired man had left it in the woods, or, having found it, to discover that somebody had chopped nails with it. After the frugal supper of samp and milk, with a wedge of pie and a hunk of cheese as a top-off’, Grandi’ather drew from its hiding place the shiny ax and, with a fine whetstone, settled down for half an evening of whetting. With his tongue first in one cheek, then in the other, Grandfather went through many facial distortions before that ax was given a satisfactory hair-splitting edge.
Then back it went behind the coattails.
Next morning, if it had been stormy, Grandfather would have stood before the window with a most woe-be-gone expression, preparatory to settling down before the fire with Baxter’s Saints’ Everlasting Rest, or Pollock’s Course of Time.
On the other hand, if it was bright and sunny, (as it was on this particular morning), with snow frozen to a hard, sparkling crust, the saints could have their rest, not Grandfather, for him there was no second helping of cereal; only one doughnut, please; no more coffee, thank you. In his morning devotions which always came directly after breakfast, he passed over the long, long chapters of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and selected 1’or reading a very short Psalm or praise. In his petitions many noble causes as well as needy individuals were shunted upon a sidetrack until evening. In an incredibly short time after the “amen,” Grandfather was in his warm cardigan, over which he buttoned his blue wool smock. Down over his ears went his black fur cap, around his neck a bison skin collar, on his hands the blue and white striped mittens with which Grandmother always kept him supplied; and from behind the broadcloth coattails came the sharp, shiny ax.
It was a crisp morning outside, well below freezing, with the ascending March sun in a cloudless sky giving hope of spring to a countryside long held in the clutches of a long Vermont winter.
From the tip of the tallest basswood, a purple finch was pouring out a continuous volley of his own interpretation of joy-to-the-world, as Grandfather emerged from the great shed door and walked briskly out through the orchard on the glistening snow crust, a man of eighty with the elastic tread of a boy of eighteen, his breath going out in white puffs on the chilly air, followed by his curious grandson.
“Where you going, Grandpa?”
“Out to the woods,” replied Grandfather.
“To cut a cherry tree.”
“To make me some medicine.”
“You sick, Grandpa?”
“No, and don’t want to be.”
“Why do you take medicine if you ain’t -sick?”
“Jest in case.”
“What does medicine do to you if you ain’t sick?”
“It’s thinning to the blood.”
“Is yer blood thick, Grandpa? II
“No, well not exactly, fur’s I know–but I don’t want it to be.”
“What does thick blood do to you, Grandpa?”
“Makes ye feel logy–_sort o’ headachey-like–comes on generally ’bout this time o’ year.”
“Is my blood thick, Grandpa?”
“Well, no, any rate I reckon it ain’t–not at your age. You don’t need this kind 0′ medicine; it would be too strong for yeh. But I can tell yeh what would be good fer yeh–leastwise ‘t wouldn’t do yeh no hurt.”
“What’s that, Grandpa?”
“sulphur’n’ m’lasses. I’ll tell yer ma to mix yeh up some.”
By this time they had reached the clump of wild cherry trees where Grandfather selected the “most likely one to be sacrificed to the cause of good health. With a few well-directed blows accompanied by as many huffs and puffs, the tree was down and trimmed of its branches. Then Grandfather selected from the long prostrate body the most likely” three-foot length which he cut out with dispatch; and, with this miniature log under his arm, he turned back towards the farmhouse, followed by his grandson struck dumb by the doleful thought of sulphur ‘n’ m’lasses. “
In a few minutes Grandfather was seated comfortably in his ladder back rocker, his feet, encased in strong cowhide boots, resting on the hearth of the kitchen range, with a milkpan in his lap, into which he whittled and scraped the green inner bark of the wild cherry. This done, he rammed the pungent whittlings down the neck of the aforesaid bottle. But the job was then only half done; the best was yet to be. With unabated agility the old man took a lighted candle in one hand and a two-quart pitcher in the other, and clumped down, down, down the cellar stairs, to the cider barrel.
That cider barrel! That, too, was sacred to Grandfather. Sure enough, everybody else had drunk their fill of sweet cider during the few days while it was “settling” in the shed, just after it had been brought in from the cider mill.
Moreover, Grandmother had appropriated several quarts which she boiled over the fireplace, in the big brass kettle, as an essential ingredient of that delicacy known locally as b’iled-cider-applesass.
But after the cider had “worked,” and the clear liquid had been drawn off and poured into the barrel in the cellar, no one touched it but Grandfather, and he not to drink it, but only to “improve” it.
This he did by putting in two or three quarts of black cherries–rum cherries, he called them–which he had gathered with his own hands. After this, he dropped in several bunches of raisins in a most prodigal manner. Then he drove in the bung and adjured Father Time to do his stuff; and neither Grandfather nor anybody else touched it from that October hour until the day after Town Meeting when Grandfather filled his bottle of cherry bark with cider, added two lumps of maplesugar, and set the concoction away with his blessing. In exactly one week, true to schedule, Grandfather took a small tumbler and poured out about half a gill, and held it up at arm’s length against the window to observe its amber glow. Then he took a wee sip to try it out, smacking his lips and rolling his eyes.
Yes, it was perfect! And down went the rest of the tonic. With a final smack of his lips, and a loud whispered A-a-ah! Grandfather set the glass down with a bang, accompanied by the observation, muttered to himself: “That stuff is wuth more ‘n all the Twiddle-Twaddle ‘s Blood
Bitters and Piffle’s Sarsaparilla in the State of Vermont poured together and b’ He d down.”
Then, a little louder, for the benefit of anyone who cared to listen: “Ethan Allen must ‘a’ took a swig o’ that stuff before he took Fort Ticonderoga.” Poor Grandfather! He little knew what sort of stuff Ethan Allen took, or how much the debunkers of history had not yet appeared to tell the world the truth, the whole truth, and, for good measure, more than the truth.
Grandfather’s tonic, taken in small doses before each meal, lasted only about a week but that was enough.
By the end of that week his blood was so thinned, and his constitution so fortified that he needed no more tonic for another whole year. Grandfather lived to the ripe old age of eighty-six.
Then, one night in late February, that villain by the name of Pneumonia–Who was it that dubbed him the old man’s friend”?–picked a fight with him and won. I’ve always had a sincere regret that Grandfather, through force of habit, did not make his tonic in February of that last fatal winter.
If he had brewed that potion a month earlier than he was wont, I am confident that when his adversary came to grips with him, Grandfather would have broken loose from his clutches, slapped him in the face, and gone on to his hundredth year