My childhood was the original Fear Factor

contributed to The Globe and Mail, Facts and Arguments

Ben Clarkson for The Globe and Mail

Some time ago I read that iodine and alcohol are not recommended for treating cuts and scrapes because they can be quite caustic on raw, broken skin.

This major scientific discovery came a few years too late for me. My mother used copious amounts of both substances on my four siblings and me in our time. When I showed the article to Mom, she sniffed and said, “So? You’re still alive, aren’t you?”

I thought back to when I was four years old, playing in the backyard while my pet rooster Charlie strutted nearby. Despite repeated warnings from my mother, I tried to get Charlie to eat grain from my hand. Now I know that roosters can be quite aggressive – another discovery that came too late. But you must understand: Charlie was my pet. I had watched him grow from a fluffy yellow ball of feathers to a handsome young rooster. We had always had an amicable relationship. So I was totally unprepared for the hissing, angry beast that suddenly flew into my face, clawing and scratching.

I don’t remember the actual attack. I do remember my mother shrieking curses at Charlie, then scolding and dragging me into the house. I had shut my eyes tight, a reflex which probably saved them from Charlie’s claws, but which also prevented me from seeing my mother brandishing the iodine until I felt her dousing my face with it. I don’t think I started crying until then. The pain was excruciating. Finally I opened my eyes and saw myself in the mirror. My face was covered with blood and iodine. I thought I was going to die.

But yes, Mom – I’m still alive. So are all my brothers and sisters, though it’s a miracle we survived our childhood. We all learned how to treat our own cuts and scrapes fairly early in life. We knew that at the first whiff of blood, Mom would appear, vampire-like, with either the dreaded green bottle (alcohol) or the dreaded brown bottle (iodine). So we cleaned ourselves up quickly and quietly, without fussing, crying or fainting. What Mom didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her, and more importantly, it wouldn’t hurt us. That is, unless we died of gangrene or blood poisoning. But we figured that if infection resulting from our inept first-aid measures didn’t kill us, the pain from Mom’s vigorous scrubbing with her favourite antiseptics would, and we all agreed that blood poisoning was the easier way to go.

Sometimes when I’m at the pharmacy I find myself looking wistfully at all the fancy first-aid products that have been invented: no-sting antiseptics, soothing ointments and multicoloured bandages. What’s more, they seem to come with the moms to match. You know the type. “Come on, honey, take this itty-bitty pill for Mommy,” they coax.

My mother would stand over you and say just two words. “SWALLOW IT.” And you would. You wouldn’t dare gag, either.

The truth is, my childhood was the original Fear Factor. The only difference was that there was no prize money at the end. If there were, I’d be a millionaire by now, because there were challenges at every turn.

Take dinner for example. We’re Filipino, and we eat some pretty weird food. Most dishes I disliked as a child I’ve actually grown to enjoy, but to a little kid, Filipino cuisine can be intimidating, to say the least. (You try choking down blood stew, or whole fish with all the bones still in it, or squid cooked in its own ink.)

But even more intimidating was – you guessed it – my mother, looking at you across the table. She didn’t have to say a word in this case, but you knew what she was thinking. “EAT IT OR ELSE.”

Did I eat it? You bet I did.

I may not have won any prize money for facing up to these challenges, but I have learned a few things that will probably go a longer way than any amount of riches.

First, what doesn’t kill you does indeed make you stronger. I don’t know if I’m as strong as my mother, but I do know that if I have to do something difficult, all I have to do is imagine her saying “DO IT” – and I take a deep breath and go for it.

Second, my mom’s love may be tough at times, but it’s real. If she’s hard on me it’s only because she loves me and believes in me. So I’ve learned not to fight her when she’s pushy, because chances are she’s pushing me in the right direction.

Third, I’ve learned that all things eventually come full circle. Mom cut her hand the other day, and she asked me to help her clean it. I went for the no-sting antiseptic – yes, this is what we use now. It lives in the medicine cabinet right beside the bottle of alcohol. Although she hardly uses alcohol any more, I guess Mom thinks her household wouldn’t be complete without it.

I couldn’t resist saying, “I’ll get the alcohol.”

Mom said, “No! This … isn’t a wound for alcohol.”

I raised an eyebrow. “What exactly is the kind of wound for alcohol?”

She smirked. “Your wounds.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s