Ode to menthol

In the season
of sickness,
of a rattling
in the chest
that lingers
and lingers
and lingers
I seek
your healing power
O my elixir

none other will do
as well as you

your name
is not always recorded
on cryptic inscriptions

but I know
it’s you

nothing else
has that

Alas, you have become
such an elusive elixir

I search high and low
(on the shelves)
just to find
you’ve vanished

leaving no trace

it befits you,
vaporous thing
that you are

I cannot entertain
the notion
of orange
or honey

These cannot
open passages
like you.

I wonder
what on Earth
I shall do

but wait…

memory stirs
like ghosts
like tendrils
like vapors, yes…

my own father
pouring your
precious substance
into a little silver tray
and plugging in
the vaporizer

there I was
suffering child
by a steamy cloud
tinged with your
cool fragrance

on through the
long, long night

(you’re no cure-all
for childhood asthma, btw
but I’m not dealing
with that

and speaking
of clouds…

back there
in the shroud
of Time
where sits
my father
my mother
on Salem cigarettes
there, the
telltale green carton
indicates your presence

I can still smell you
on the foil
of those packs
and in the
smoke ribbons
curling in the air
(aside: salem means

—what a cool operator
you are,
alternately healing
and stealing

but then…

far back
so far back
I find you
at your purest,

sick child
that I was
to breathe
(yeah, it’s a theme)

my grandfather
going to
his medicine cabinet
for a little
cobalt-blue tub
my grandmother
unscrewing the
aqua lid
and with one finger
slathering a good dollop
under my nose

(which now
no one is
supposed to do
although clearly
I am alive)

and it is this memory
these moments
that are salve to my soul.
balm to my spirit

and so I come
to find you
like a miracle
in my own
medicine cabinet

whereupon I slather
my own self
up good

relishing your
mint-oil fire

your vapors
like a blanket
of love
enveloping me

Yea, with
a little
more ease

until this

at last…

O, my elixir.

Fun facts: Vick’s VapoRub was invented in 1894 in the North Carolina county next to where I live now. It was originally called Vick’s Magic Croup Salve. From the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources: “The salve in the blue jar is made of menthol, camphor, oil of eucalyptus and several other oils, blended in a base of petroleum jelly.The creator invented it to cure his son of severe croup…which it did. Spanish flu killed the inventor in 1919 but, paradoxically, that pandemic drastically increased demand for his product. Oh…and guess who worked at the inventor’s drugstore as a teenager? O. Henry.

My ode, however is to menthol, not just Vick’s, seeing as I had to include my parents’ Salem menthols in the mix. I was an asthmatic child, my first attack occurring at age three months. As I grew, I often begged to stay with my grandparents when I was sick; they slathered me with this old remedy, hence my great affinity for VapoRub. Accordingly, my grandparents are ever-present in the healing power of that clean menthol burn…nowadays I am not troubled with asthma but when I feel a cold coming on, or, as in the present moment, trying to shake the rattling cough after a cold, Vick’s DayQuil with VapoCool is my go-to. It works, to which widely empty shelves attest. I finally had some delivered by Instacart (had to show ID, of course) so I can continue burning the rattle out of my chest…it’s the best thing I know of, outside of a certain homemade “recipe” made by one of my old-time church members from the country…not exactly sure what was in THAT jar, but it would’ve surely burned this stuff out long before now… that, however, is another story for another day.

Here’s to the healing power of menthol.


with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the monthlong Slice of Life Story Challenge
and to Kim Johnson,

whose series on Epsom salts convinced me that I really, really should write about menthol
(which, yes, can occasionally be dangerous, so use with care)

16 thoughts on “Ode to menthol

  1. Ha, absolutely wonderful ode. We swear by Vicks in my family; my husband, however, just doesn’t get it (*eye roll*) I hope you’re on the road to recovery soon!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Britt – I realize you and I are both in the throes of healing at the moment! Vick’s is mighty stuff, indeed. Not sure it would take away wisdom tooth extraction pain – but you never know!


  2. The Menthol experience is one you never forget, and I, too, immediately thought of the stink of Salem cigarettes when reading the first part of the poem, before your memory pivot.

    Loved this line for the literal and the metaphorical:
    “These cannot
    open passages
    like you”


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fran, first I hope you feel better if you are
    still sick. The pollen here has us all struggling to breathe. I’m so glad you wrote this piece on menthol – the cigarettes and the medicine. I have memories of this as a child too – only it got slathered on my tongue so it could coat my throat. No one would ever do that today (the things we did back then…). This was a staple in our medicine chest. Today we put a thick coat of it on the bottoms of our feet after an hot shower when our feet are soft and then put on a thick pair of socks before bed – we’ve moved its use from head to foot. I’m glad you shared the unique history of Vicks Vaporub. So many memories here in this tub of rub! In Georgia, the product with the unique medical history is Coca Cola. The road where the Georgia Aquarium is in Atlanta is Pemberton Place, named for the doctor who invented it for headaches – and the original recipe is said to have had a dusting of cocaine, hence the Coca in the cola. This recipe stood the test of time since we still have outbreaks of headaches and need the caffeine rush – but isn’t it something how these products bring such memories and remind us of the power of modern medicine!? I love your slice today – it’s so timely for the season. My favorite part:
    whereupon I slather
    my own self
    up good

    I hear the regional dialect in here and love it. It’s what I love most about Twain – forget the King’s English and tell it straight. I did that in my grooming experience blog today too (I’m a Baptist who makes the Catholic sign of the cross on occasion, and the mere mention of yesterday brings me to that). But I love how you wrote this and what a flip of the menthol – in both struggling and healing of breathing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kim, I recall learning of the origins of Coca-Cola – imagine!! And VapoRub takes me straight to my grandparents and their home in the far reaches of eastern NC. It was a Vick’s menthol solution Daddy poured in the vaporizer, too, which really only made stuff taped to my walls peel loose. Regional dialect… I started a story with it years ago that I keep telling myself I need to finish…thank you for being such a tremendous encourager and inspiration!


  4. You have outdone yourself, Fran! Salve, balm, mint oil fire! What an intense and spiraling poem.When I saw the title. I asked myself- what do bluebirds have to do with menthol? You surprised me! This is pure wonderful! Feel better!


  5. Fran, what fun your post is about menthol, and what a shame that Salem cigarettes are called salem — peaceful / complete / safe / perfect
    And the menthol “alternately healing / and stealing / breath” Such a powerful review of menthol!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh the memories that Vick’s vaporub stirs up. It’s a worldwide remedy as I grew up with it in England and it’s definitely a cure all here in Australia. I think asthma would be a terrible thing to live with, I know people whose children nearly died of it, it’s quite rampant in Australia. I am glad you are over it now. It definitely helps croup, as I’ve stood in a steamy shower cubicle with a wheezy baby with vicks on his chest..!
    Menthol is a rather beautiful word that evokes peppermint rather than cigarettes for me (fortunately!). Over here we have peppermint gums that do smell of menthol and eucalyptus oil is also a cure for coughs.
    Salem, what a misnomer for cigarettes! My mum smoked occasionally but I think the brand was Benson & Hedges (what a British sounding name!) Thanks for all the Vicks facts and the soothing poem!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Natural menthol is made by freezing peppermint oil – your connection is a real thing! Also explains the cooling property. I know I would love those gums….and eucalyptus is in VapoRub, too. Which takes me back to my love of koalas, whose diet means that they have natural mosquito repellent – so fortunate.


  7. Oh Fran, I hope you are on the mend with nothing menthol can’t solve. Your ode is rich with imagery and rhythm. I can almost smell it; they say memories hide in sounds and scents. You weaved the past so seamlessly into your poem. Favorite lines- “memory stirs
    like ghosts
    like tendrils
    like vapors, yes…”

    Liked by 1 person

  8. So many memories entwined in this poem! I keep my tub of menthol goo on my nightstand, as Central Texas allergies and elementary school germs necessitate its use at least a few days each month. I have a distinct memory from my college years, visiting back home where my grandparents were keeping our house while my parents were overseas. I got a wicked night cough, and my grandmother slathered my neck with VapoRub, wrapped it with an old tube sock and held it in place with a diaper pin. That, and a strong hot toddy, let me sleep through the night.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Those old remedies worked, didn’t they? Pine pollen is has been terrible here for the past month – one of the worst places in the U.S. for allergy sufferers. I thought maybe this stuff was an allergy but it became a full-blown, lingering cold. Cough seems better now, sinuses do not. I am not above putting VapoRub on my lip tonight when I go to bed!

      Liked by 1 person

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