Culling her collection of vintage treasures, my sister handed me a box of old bottles to see if I had a use for any of them. I immediately chose the Burma-Shave jar with its ribbed glass and navy blue lid. Burma Shave was a shaving cream company whose marketing campaign placed consecutive lines of rhyming advertising jingles along highways from the 1920s to the early 60s such as “Special Seats/Reserved in Hades/For Whiskered Gents/Who Scratch/The Ladies/Burma-Shave.”
Every year or so, a crew would change the signs, throwing the old boards on the ground. Because the Smith farm bordered the highway, my Grandpa Smith would pick up the discarded wood—still good lumber—to fix a shed or patch a broken window. My parents brought some of these signs to Colorado and now they hang in the Sunflower Room at Stonebridge. My sister had found the old Burma-Shave jar on the farm after my grandparents’ deaths. It seemed fitting to reunite it with the signs advertising the shaving cream that used to fill the jar.
After I picked out some medicinal vials for bottling the berry cordial we make each fall, I noticed a small bottle with a rubber stopper for a lid. When I lifted it out of the box, I gasped. Here was my Grandpa Smith’s mercurochrome bottle, the one he’d used to doctor our scrapes and cuts every summer. He’d patiently lift us up to sit on the kitchen counter, the better to “paint,” as he would say, our knees and elbows with the metallic orange-red tincture. Today mercurochrome is banned in the United States because it contains mercury but back then, we believed as much in its curative powers as we did in our grandpa’s doctoring skills.
Its label faded and torn, its rubber stopper hardened in the bottle’s glass neck, my grandfather’s mercurochrome bottle evoked another memory of childhood complaints. Mercurochrome wasn’t the only medicine in the farm’s kitchen cabinet. I remembered the smell of the medicine before I remembered its name: Listerine. Not the cool mint or citrus fresh flavors of today but the antiseptic scent of the original mouthwash my grandfather used to stop our mosquito bites from itching.
How we winced when that home remedy stung our arms and legs but it kept us from scratching the mosquito bites that plagued us those hot summer nights in the North Dakota countryside. Like mercurochrome, it worked, but even if it hadn’t, we wouldn’t have questioned our grandfather’s authority to use it. We trusted those moments of tender curing that affirmed a grandparent’s love.