We never looked forward to the start of any school term. In addition to the realization that “wi free paper bun”, judgment day was always that last Saturday just before school reopened, when all the joys of the holidays would evaporate into the feverish preparation of uniform and books for school, and the forbidding prospect of the back-to-school de-worming exercise.
That day was usually approached with fear and trembling, especially if it was uncertain whether the purgative of choice would be ‘Benjamin’s Herb Tea’ bought from the chiney-man’s grocery shop around the corner, or the evil-tasting castor oil sent with special emissary by our Aunt Della, from the plains of St. Elizabeth. Her oil-nut trees would yield, if for no one else, a pint of the pungent viscosity especially for her sister, bequeathing us children who had harassed her that summer with our just rewards. Those fateful Saturday mornings would find us strangely quiet and on our best behaviour, in the vain hope that she would pass us by, but our mother was unrelenting in administering this punishment, and only a bad head- or chest-cold was serious enough to warrant a stay of execution.
Breakfast was not an option on those days, because the purgative was more effective on an empty stomach. Its objective was not just to relieve our systems of toxins so we could better absorb our lessons at school; there was this question of worms. Mama probably thought we needed to be starved to keep the worms hungry, so that the herb tea or the castor oil could knock them out cold and flush them.
Try as you might, you could never convince our mother that her children could ever be worm-free. She could even determine the kind of worms we hosted by our very disposition. Eat too much, and you’d have greedy worms, and if you picked at your food, you probably had a sense of fullness because of the volume of worms in the stomach. Sluggish? Lazy worms were the culprits, and too much activity would mean pinworms or threadworms. Mama also thought worms were to blame for such problems as stomach aches, bed-wetting and teeth-grinding.
Castor oil was inevitable if it was the end of the summer holidays, part of which would have been spent cavorting barefoot through the St. Elizabeth bush in the company of farm animals, and eating infested fruit, which as you might have guessed, could have transmitted a colony of worms into our tender stomachs. But not even the promise of the foul-tasting castor oil could rob us of summer’s pleasures; we lived for the moment, and the threat “chicken merry; hawk deh near” from our aunt when we challenged her authority, was not enough to keep us on the straight and narrow. We would only sober up on the long drive back to Kingston, becoming more silent with each mile the old Vauxhall consumed. By the time we got home, we wore halos.
Mama’s system was foolproof and timed to the minute. At 8:00 o’ clock the next morning after a night of unspeakable torment, if the herb tea was the designated “wash-out”, our mugs would be placed before us on the dining table, the leather belt placed conspicuously in close proximity as a warning to anyone who had notions of letting “this cup pass”. We’d have no more than five minutes to down its contents, so under her watchful eye, the only option we had to get the brew down our gullets was to pinch our nostrils and drink.
Administering the castor oil however, was not that simple. The entire process could involve much pleading and bawling, a vain exercise, for our mother was resolute. And since regurgitation could have far-reaching repercussions, it was best to pinch the nose, swallow the contents of the tablespoon and suck on the orange provided. To this day, if I take my orange juice directly from the fruit, I swear the taste of the castor oil returns to stalk me.
The stomach contractions would start an hour and a half later, so by ten we would be past mere discomfort, writhing in unbelievable pain, and envisaging the worms at war, reluctant to leave our stomachs. It would be remiss of me to take you thus far and not to tell you the rest of the tale, but here I must warn you that it is not intended for the faint of heart.
For Mama had yet to employ her greatest ally in this “wash out” exercise, to assure her that her offspring were ready for school on Monday.
Enter the once-unmentionable “chimmey”.
Back in the day, before flush handle or pull chain water closets were commonplace, an unassuming but indispensable container quietly held pride of place beneath each bed. No home was complete without this portable vessel, and there was no one too high nor too mighty, who could ever boast of never having needed its use. The chimmey had the shape of an oversized teacup, and usually came in the purest white enamel, although by our time plastic had begun to show up in vibrant child-friendly tones more conducive to potty training.
On second thought, I think I’ll spare you the details…
With the ordeal over, after our brunch of chicken soup, the smiles would feebly return, the evils of the morning forgotten. There were a multitude of things to complete; books had to be packed, uniforms checked, and shoes had to be polished and shined. We just needed to leave vacuous thinking behind, and get back into school mode worm-free, only made possible by Mama’s effective “washout”!