Monday March 22, 2021

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I recently had a Zoom call with the group from Casa Italia in Chicago. Your guest speaker was Anthony Riccio; Author, photographer and oral historian.

He talked about what Italians did in America during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. Having nothing to cure or prevent, they turned to home remedies like garlic tied around their necks in a pearl necklace or camphor, the forerunner of today’s Vicks. also applied around the neck or under the nose. We may find the remedies curious, but that is all they had to offer for a disease they did not understand and which unfortunately devastated thousands.

It reminded me of my grandmother’s healings when I was a child.


As soon as Grandma heard that one of her grandchildren was sick, she acted like magic and rushed into the room with an evil, banishing gold horn (horn) that swung like a pendulum on a necklace. Their compendium included valiant remedies imported from Pollutri, their town in the Italian province of Chieti. Her healings were bizarre, ritual, and not fun. She calmed me down. I protested and lost. For a sore throat, her remedy for egg white was beaten, soaked in a cloth (mopine), wrapped around my neck and fastened with a large safety pin. After a while the mopine became cast-like, stiff as a sheet of ice. “Do you feel like a Betta?” I lied.

A cold potato for a burn or its peels for a headache. Cloves of garlic for toothache; Octagonal soap, crushed and mixed with sugar for cooking; heated and melted camphor on the chest for a cough.

When Grandma believed that illness was a result of supernatural forces or people with evil intentions that unleash the evil eye, the Mal’occhio (“Malooka”), she acted. Since the look was so stern that the victim became sick, she believed that only Malooka could disarm it. She pointed down with the inverted first and last finger in the shape of a horn, dropped oil on water, made the sign of the cross and read the pattern. If the oil separated, the disease was not a Mal’occhio. If the oil spread in a single layer, it was evidence of the evil eye’s work.

Christianity and modern medicine forced Grandma to give up her practices (somehow) but never to believe or distrust all of them. The only thing she remained convinced of was the importance of a decontaminated bowel.

A clean bowel meant feeling good and being in good health. Bad tasting castor oil was her favorite tonic for everything: fever, pain, rashes, aches and pains, falls, constipation, even diarrhea. It was protection too.

Occasionally, even when we were fine, she dosed. How well I remember standing like a pole, arms at my sides, fists clenched, lips pursed, and then opened my mouth on command. Gulp ‘errgh, it went down! Not long after that it came out with a vengeance. From outside the bathroom door, Grandma asked, “Ed-a-Wood, are you feeling well now?”

I think it worked. I’m alive to tell

Dr. Ed Iannuccilli is the author of three popular memoirs: “Growing up Italian; Grandfather’s Fig Tree and Other Stories ”,“ Whatever Happened to Sunday Dinner ”and“ My Story Continues: From Neighborhood to Junior High ”. Find out more here.

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