A home remedy unites mourners after its maker’s death.
“Milwee was certain that her uncle’s formula was a panacea for countless ailments, aches, and pains: ‘Just rub some on and expect a miracle to occur.’”
There was a strange assortment of people observing the funeral of my aunt Milwee, who died peacefully on her ninetieth birthday.
Per Milwee’s request, the funeral was held on the lawn of Williamston’s Faith Presbyterian Church, and the burial was in its graveyard on the premises. There were white chairs for those who needed them, and then an area roped off with white ribbons for others who would stand. The entire scene gave the appearance of an impending wedding, not a farewell.
A large number of mourners who did not necessarily know each other were present to take part in the service and to say their goodbyes to a woman who personified the old hymn “Blest be the tie that binds.” She was the interweaving thread that connected them and even some of their animals.
The fact that the crowd was much larger than expected demonstrated the universal appeal of a woman who preferred just to be called Milwee,not by the two titles that she had acquired over her years: the healer and Doc. She had been given the family name of her uncle, the only doctor in Anderson County. There were those at the service who felt that with his name had come his powers to heal and his recipe for a miraculous and somewhat mysterious cure-all balm. Everyone knew that the balm was successful, but they all had to be content without knowing how or why it worked.
Aunt Milwee, really my Great-Aunt Milwee, was certain that her uncle’s formula was a panacea for countless ailments, aches, and pains: “Just rub some on and expect a miracle to occur.” Her claim sounded just one degree away from that of a snake-oil salesman. The cure was to be applied to the targeted area on the human body, or for that matter, to the bodies of dogs, cats, even parakeets — anywhere the skin or hide was afflicted. There were stories of its success on cows, chickens, goats, and horses.
The balm was truly a sensory enigma, with a sticky, unhomogenized texture somewhat like a combination of Elmer’s Glue and petroleum jelly, dotted with globs of various ingredients. Its smell was a combination of petroleum jelly, liquid vitamins (especially B-12), turpentine, alcohol, cortisone, water from the healing lithium springs of Williamston, and who-knows-what-else. It inspired a conviction that the worse it smelled, the more healing powers it manifested.
Its presentation in empty Duke’s Mayonnaise jars did not diminish any claim to real medicinal value, especially since Duke’s was known to soothe the pain of severe sunburn. Milwee made a point of saying that people could call it a salve or a liniment, but she preferred the word balm because it had a biblical reference, Balm of Gilead. Like the owners of the Coca-Cola formula, she would never reveal the totality of its contents, neither names nor amounts; only she could replicate it.
Aunt Milwee contended that several physicians endorsed her concoction and gave glowing testimonials to its effectiveness. Someday, when she had the time, she would get a patent on it; but for right now, she just made it available for anyone who was in need.
The seeker had to find the healer, because she did not make the ointment available in pharmacies and drugstores. Even though she lived in the foothills of South Carolina, people came down from the mountains of North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee to get her cure. They heard about it by word of mouth and they too, eventually were able to swear by its therapeutic value and inform others.
Milwee had medical credentials. She was a graduate of the old militaristic Greenville General Hospital School of Nursing. As a student she had lived in the attached nurses’ residence and abided by a very strict set of rules and regulations governing the lives of all who dared to become nurses. There was a certain decorum of professionalism that was expected of all students before and after they earned their caps. Milwee was taught to be assertive and rigid, two traits that seemed to be reflected in her impeccably white and heavily starched uniforms, ones that appeared to move her instead of vice-versa. She wore Woodrow Wilson style round glasses that added to her stern appearance, especially when she lowered her head so that she could peer over them in order to focus on her patients. She carried a satchel of medicinal objects much like the traditional bag that doctors used for home visits; hence, the nickname Doc.
Her bedside manner was essentially gruff. She was all business: “What’s wrong? Where does it hurt? This is what I’m going to do.” There was no reason to question her competence or judgement. She was infallible. Only the bravest of the brave would dare tread on that ground.
Another distinctive part of Milwee’s persona was her choice of automobiles; hers was a large black Buick, which looked like either a doctor’s or a mortician’s car. It was so recognizable that its appearance in front of our house informed our neighbors that “the cure” was nearby, meaning that anyone with an ailment could stand in line outside waiting on the Doc to emerge and distribute her magic. She would make a perfunctory assessment and distribute the gooey salve as needed.
My first encounter with the cure came by way of my mother, MamaLu, who had decided to clean the front porch with muriatic acid in order to lift the red mud stains that came with living in the Piedmont region of South Carolina. She found it difficult to remove the lid of the container in the normal way, and being somewhat impatient with it, she jabbed the plastic bottle with a knife. Her thinking was that she would cut a hole in it. When she jabbed, however, the acid spewed out everywhere including on her exposed legs and arms. Within seconds, she had random lines running up and down from her knees to her toes, from her fingers to her shoulders. The acid just ate away the skin. Thankfully, her face was not assaulted. She already had the water running, so she turned it onto her legs and arms to wash off as much as she could. It helped to calm the sting but did nothing to mitigate the bizarre appearance of her streaked appendages. My brothers and I wanted to call the doctor immediately, but MamaLu, probably embarrassed, did not want him to witness the results of her impatience. Instead, she asked my brother Johnny to call Aunt Milwee to see if she could make an emergency run with the balm.
Milwee was at our house within thirty minutes, giving orders and taking care of wounds.
“Finish cleaning that porch so your mother won’t have any more dealings with that acid,” she told my brothers Curt and BB very sternly as she walked through the front door. “Then rinse it several times, but don’t get any on your skin … Put some tomato soup on and fix some grilled cheese sandwiches,” she said to me.
I obeyed. She went straight to the bedroom where MamaLu had positioned herself so that she could put ice and the balm on the afflicted areas.
I heard her say, “Honey, get rid of the ice and dry off your legs and arms. I need to make an application. Also, you’ll need to wear a long-sleeved shirt and long pants once I put the balm on.” Aunt Milwee opened the Duke’s Mayonnaise jar and started applying her balm liberally, assuring MamaLu that nothing short of a miracle would occur.
MamaLu said the stinging feeling was increasing, but Milwee professed that such a reaction meant that the healing was taking place. The treatment took about twenty minutes. MamaLu would be fine within a week, so Aunt Milwee claimed, as she gave her two jars so that to reapply every other day.
Then Milwee picked up her bag and semi-chastised her niece for having dealings with any type of acid. Then she told her to stay in bed for the afternoon and said I would be bringing her lunch on a tray.
I had already set a place for Doc so that when she finished her treatment, she could eat, which she did. She lectured my four brothers and me about watching out for our mother, reminding us of her poor eyesight. Then she asserted that the lid to the acid could have been easily removed using an adjustable pair of pliers. She sent Curt on a reconnaissance mission for such an instrument. His search was successful and Milwee demonstrated its use: “Maybe next time, your mother will think about using this,” she said as she held it in her left hand — the right hand holding a half-eaten grilled cheese. Then she put the pliers on the tray that was being delivered to MamaLu, a less than subtle hint.
MamaLu was just glad to be wearing the long attire so that the damage was concealed. And in time, she did heal.
My own use of the miracle balm came at age seven, when I developed the worst case of poison ivy imaginable. I had it all over my body, including my scalp. Evidently I had climbed a tree that was covered in the three-leaf menace. My face was swollen, my eyes would barely open, and much of the rash had developed into boils that would ooze the liquid venom — I was a horror to behold. The effects had progressed far beyond exterior itching to interior pain. My arms, legs, and joints hurt, especially when I moved. The application of the old standby, calamine lotion, proved to be nothing more than the addition of the color pink to my already inflamed reddish skin.
It was time for Aunt Milwee to come to the rescue. Upon receiving the call, she made a new batch of her balm and headed out to our house. When she saw my condition, she stated the obvious: “This is the worst case of poison ivy I have ever seen. Did you eat the leaves?” I assured her that I hadn’t.
She then instructed me to pop and drain as many of the blisters as possible, then to apply the balm. Part of the treatment plan was to just “live it out,” meaning that it would eventually go away “if it doesn’t half kill you.” I was well within two weeks.
My brothers also swore by the healing properties of the balm — Johnny and BB for their acne; Curt for his strained baseball throwing arm; and Paul for bee stings. Our grandmother used it liberally for her bursitis.
Perhaps the strangest application of the cure came when a person unknown to us showed up on the front porch, now rid of red mud, with a mynah bird who was losing feathers on various parts of his body. The loss had affected the bird’s disposition; he seemed to be embarrassed and would not talk. The man was as ingratiating as a human could be as he practically begged for the cure. He claimed that the bird, named Georgie, was just like a child to him and that he was desperate for anything to help.
Acting as if our house was a secondary dispensary, I put three heaping tablespoons of balm into a baby food jar and sent him on his way. About a month later we received a note proclaiming again the miraculous healing power of the balm. Georgie was cured and back to his old self, even repeating a new word to everyone, proclaiming the name “Milwee” repeatedly — even though he never met her.
When told, our aunt acknowledged the compliment as if she expected it. After all, she was the druggist/manufacturer of the human, canine, feline, and now avian cure.
On the day of the funeral, the crowd began to assemble as early as nine o’clock for the combined viewing and service, set to start at eleven o’clock. The open casket was placed immediately before the improvised pulpit an hour before the service. Anyone who wanted to pass by and have one last glance at Milwee could do so. Several did go by and reverently thanked her for curing this or that. She looked ethereal as she rested in the coffin, her starched white uniform almost disappearing into the white silk lining. Her round signature glasses sat on her nose. Her nursing pen rested on her lapel. Her worn medical bag was placed at her feet. And then there was the most unlikely accoutrement, her black Buick — it was parked beside the coffin, leading some to speculate that she might drive it on up to heaven.
The first two rows looked like a choir of angels all decked out in white, but they were, in fact, nursing colleagues from three different generations, all sitting erect and with the air of reverence demanded by the passing of one of their own. By ten o’clock, the line to view the coffin was fairly long and the entire affair was becoming something of a spectacle. The group was not boisterous, but by no means was it silent and reserved either.
Evidently numerous people who had known each other over the years had just now become aware that they all had shared a common experience. They exchanged previously unknown stories about their encounters with the healer. There was a poison ivy contingent of at least ten of us who grouped ourselves together after overhearing each other’s conversations. Those who now had hair on their head, the un-bald, also found themselves in a group.
Several farmers reminisced about how their cows had been cured; an amazing number of calves had been named Milwee, and the rare birth of twin calves in the town of Liberty had resulted in both a Miland a Wee. Two farmers had actually brought cows with them, and the assembled congregants could hear the occasional moo during the proceedings.
Another farmer had brought two cured goats. Thankfully, he kept them in his truck where they emitted cries like a baby. For those unschooled in all things goat-related, it was almost too much to handle.
Georgie, the mynah bird, now practically geriatric, let out a pattern of three piercing “Milwees” randomly and extemporaneously, much like the Amens in the local Pentecostal church. Several dog lovers brought their canines, the same for several cat lovers. Seemingly able to recognize the solemnity of the occasion and not even complaining about the black bows around their necks, the family pets kept their calm. In her letter of instructions, Milwee had asked that they receive a special blessing. The minister followed through with her request.
The service was typically Presbyterian, not a lot of hoopla nor rigmarole, just readings from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Psalms. During her life, Milwee had proclaimed that she was really a Quaker in her beliefs, but since there were no meeting hall nearby, she just lined up with the Presbyterians, who were not prone to overt displays of religiosity. There were two hymns sung a cappella and a group recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. The preacher had a few kind words to say, mentioning the cure as a “gift from God.” Then at the conclusion of the formal service, as the pallbearers moved forward, he walked around to the front of the casket and, per another of Milwee’s requests, placed a Duke Mayonnaise jar full of the balm in her hands. He said a brief prayer and then slowly closed the lid of the coffin; off she went to be buried in the family plot.
During these solemn moments, there were a few tears and head shakings. No one missed the symbolism of their healer’s departure toward the graveyard, still embracing the jar.
She was literally taking the cure with her to the grave.
Chris Carbaugh has published work in The Heartland Review, The Bitter Southerner, Gravel, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, JMWW, Streetlight Magazine, The South Carolina Review, Kestrel, THEMA, Hippocampus, The New Southerner, Valley Voices, and several other journals.