Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Buttermilk Christmas

My mother had chronic pains in her neck and head. She often had migraines, “sick headaches” she called them, and she’d have me mix her a “headache cocktail” — a barbiturate called Doriden with two Empirin Compounds (an analgesic mix) into a paper napkin, crushed by a heavy coffee mug into a fine powder and then shaken into a fruit-juice glass.

The final step was to add one teaspoon of spirits of ammonia, bought from the pharmacy in small bottles, to the mix, stirred with a dollop of water. Stinky stuff.

Doriden, a wonderful barbiturate, helped, haunted and hurt my mother and our family for years. It’s still around today, but used sparingly, in a classification along with cocaine, morphine, PCP and injectable methamphetamine.

It didn’t always help the pain, but if anything would, this would. It also usually put her to sleep. Unfortunately, in December 1955 the kind doctor prescribing the drug decided Mom should not have it anymore. The results were alarming.

In truth, doctors in those years didn’t really know all that we do now about addictions and how to handle them. I had just turned 10, and all I knew was that in December my father asked me to sit on my mother’s ankles. She had fallen to the floor in the living room and was convulsing from classic barbiturate withdrawal. He could hold her head, but he needed me to try to contain her legs.

He was calm during these episodes, as he was calm during almost everything. It was a tableau that typified our behaviors — Dad was quietly making everything all right, Mom was the focus of our attention, I was the helpful boy.

Over the next few weeks, Dad and the doctor arranged for Mom to be admitted to a hospital in Oklahoma City for experimental treatments that might help her back and head pain. Dad and I packed up the ole Buick and headed north from our hometown, Houston, with Mom sitting in the back.

That’s how Dad and I found ourselves alone and hungry in Oklahoma on Christmas Day of 1955. Mom had been set up in her hospital room and basically medicated to an extent that kept her from being alert. About the time it got dark, Dad said: “Son, let’s hop in the car and leave the hospital. We’ll go downtown for a special Christmas dinner, eh?” I was all for it.

Turns out downtown Oklahoma City on that Christmas Day offered very little. All of the chain restaurants and fast-food places that now dot every American town didn’t exist back then.

As we drove up and down the deserted streets, I began to think we wouldn’t be eating. In fact, we should have had a cheese sandwich in the hospital cafeteria … again.

“Isn’t this great,” my dad said, “it’s like a modern ghost town, and we’re the only ones here. Makes this Christmas special, almost downright mystical, just by its emptiness.”

After a few more turns we saw what seemed to be a diner. It was in the middle of a downtown block, and it appeared to have lights on. We parked on the deserted street and went in, filled with hope and hunger.

Sure enough, it was a diner open for business. We were the only customers, and Dora — a middle-aged big-haired waitress with a white apron, a wide smile and sensible shoes — met us right away and with a sweeping arm gesture gave us our choice of seating. We selected a red-leatherette booth by the window, letting us watch for any other vehicle that might happen through the streetlights.

Dad had sliced ham with sweet potatoes; I went for fried chicken and mashed potatoes. Of course, Dad let me steal the melted marshmallows off his sweet potatoes.

We enjoyed the meal unencumbered by the noise of any other diners, and then I asked Dora if by chance they had a slice of pecan pie. “You know, Sug,” she said, “we do have one back in the kitchen, made right here with two kinds of Karo syrup and with extra pecans. We’ve been holding it for a special 10-year-old customer.” “I’m 10,” I almost shouted. Doris smiled, raised her eyebrows and said, “Well then, I think it’s your’un.” She then looked at my father and said, “What about you?”

Dad said: “Gosh, what I’d really like for this Christmas meal is a small glass of buttermilk, but I bet that’s not something you offer, is it?” Doris pulled out the pencil from her hair, used it to scratch a spot just above her ear, and said: “You know, I think we have one small glass left.” She went back to the kitchen.

“Why’d she call me ‘Sug,’ Dad,” I asked. “That’s short for ‘Sugar,’ I think,” he said. I was about to ask him how he could stand to drink buttermilk, that horrid-looking lumpy stuff, when I looked out the window and saw what seemed to be the backside of Dora, wearing a jacket and scurrying away from us down the sidewalk.

A few minutes later I saw her coming toward us, with a lit cigarette in her mouth and a small, uncovered glass of buttermilk in her right hand, held out in front to smooth out her steps.

Right after that she appeared at our booth, minus the jacket and the cigarette, to deliver a huge piece of pecan pie and what to Dad was a glorious glass of buttermilk. He sipped and smiled as I greedily devoured the pie, certain that I tasted two kinds of Karo syrup.

The treatments didn’t cure Mom’s pain, but the time in the hospital allowed her to stop using barbiturates for a good while. We would spend other holidays in other hospitals in the years to come, always hoping for the right cure. But the magic of that feel-special Christmas night in Oklahoma City didn’t happen again.

It was truly special, almost downright mystical.

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