The Dirty Job of Sacrifice, Mom-Style

Still Life with Aromatic Ointment. October, 2011.

The Things Done for Love

All my life I’ve used my bare hands to apply mentholated ointment, because that’s how my mom applied it when I was sick as a little girl. Recently I’ve had bronchitis and the ointment has been my friend.

Vicks sorely strained our friendship one evening. I’d rubbed on the ointment and washed my hands furiously with hot water and soap, determined to obliterate any trace of the sticky, smelly stuff. Twenty minutes later, I rubbed my eyes and was rewarded with intense burning: I’d gotten a bit of VapoRub in my eye.

I do lots of things the way my mother did them. I’ve never tried a new recipe for meat loaf or potato salad; I prepare those foods the way she did, and I’m happy. Like her, I prefer tinsel to garland on my Christmas tree.

But the Burning Eye Incident led me, the next morning, to improve upon the method of delivery for aromatic rubs. Determined to leave not a speck behind on my fingers, I tore off a sheet of wax paper, wadded it up, and used it as a mop to apply the gooey stuff to my chest and throat.

My new method worked. I washed my hands when I was done, and when I dried them they were perfectly clean.

Pleased with my success, I posted a status update on Facebook sharing my secret. My friends comments were eye-opening. It seems everyone but me had long since conquered this challenge. One uses tissue. Another uses a wash cloth. Q-tips and cotton balls have their adherents, too, apparently.

Being confined to the couch provided me with lots of time to consider things. That day, I was wondering: Mom was a smart, smart woman. Why on earth did she always use her bare hand to rub that stuff on me when I was sick? 

I closed my eyes and pictured my childhood bedroom with bunk beds, Mom pushing aside a stuffed menagerie to sit on pink chenille, leaning in, close over me, with the little blue pot of Vicks in her hand. I remembered how it had been, all those years ago. I could almost feel her massaging the ointment into my fevered skin.

Even the memory of her touch soothed me.

Then I understood.

Maybe, when Mom put the rub on her own skin, she did use a tissue or a cotton ball to apply it. But when her little girl was ill, she accepted the prospect of sticky, vile-smelling residue haunting her hands, because she knew that her hand on my skin would comfort me as no wad of Kleenex ever could.

That’s sacrificial love. And it can be dirty, dirty work.

4 Surely our H)’>bore, And our I)’>God, and afflicted. 5 But He was J)’>our transgressions, He was crushed for L)’>chastening for our M)’>His scourging we are healed.  

Isaiah 53:4-5 (NASB)


  1. Oh, Sheila, what a lovely, blessed conclusion you came to: your sweet mother used her hands to comfort you as no tissue or wad of wax paper could. I love this!

    I’ve been collecting stories about hands, hoping to some day write a series of memoir vignettes about hands of my loved ones. For this project I have also cropped family photos, keeping only the hands.

    Anyway, you can be sure I’m adding your story to my collection of hand stories.

    Thanks for the heart-warming read today, Sheila!


  2. Thanks, Linda, for your kind words. Your hand story collection sounds fascinating.

  3. Vicks Vapor Rub – – and the tender touch of a mother’s hands! Yes, that is how I remember it too. Then she would apply a piece of cloth probably a hankie, so the Vicks would not get on my P.J.s – –

    I did the same for my children. For myself, I must remember the Kleenex.

  4. Maybe it’s a universal trait of American motherhood….Vicks, I mean.

  5. I needed this at right this very moment. Thank you, Sheila.

  6. It’s my privilege, Carolyn.

  7. Okay, your post nearly undid me and then I read Linda’s comment about doing a study on hands, and that pushed me over the top.

    At times, when one of my kids was angry and insisting on pushing us away, I would steal moments when I could quietly lay a single hand on his shoulder. At times, it was the only way I could communicate love. (I have gotten a few hugs recently, though. Boy, they feel good!)

  8. Nancy,
    We find ways to “tell” them, even when they think they don’t want to hear, don’t we? Us moms?

    And YAY for those hugs!!

  9. Hello Sheila =) I keep seeing you everywhere and thought I’d peek in to say hi. I always smile at your candid thoughts and comments… I enjoy them so. Now, I see why… I was smelling the Vicks even as you typed. What a gift, the loving, healing memory of mom’s touch. I can’t help but think that in the busyness of her day, with a sick child and all… that the aroma of Vick’s brought her some comfort and healing too. Blessings to you, the Sheila who makes me smile with comforting thoughts. =)

  10. Well, thank you, Patricia! I’m so glad you came by.

  11. So now you’ve got me wondering… Is it the Vicks that brings the healing, or the touch?

    {I once got toothpaste in my eye. Not a good experience.}

  12. Toothpaste! Oi!

    The touch can’t hurt, I’m sure…