Every Valentine’s Day Walt went down to Trudie’s Drug Store in Suffern and bought Tessie a big heart shaped box of chocolate stuffed with various gooey, nutty, sugared innards. For a few days afterward we all pinched and poked the underbelly of the little chocolates seeking caramel or nut and avoiding coconut and strawberry, until the once paper-collared candies looked like the scattered fragments of a mistake. This Valentine’s Day was different. My mom Tessie was in the hospital as her thyroid had been acting up and they wanted her in for a day of observation. I did not know what a thyroid was. Walt told me it meant she was low in iron. This only confused me more. I tried to explain to Ricky Cramshaw that my mom was low in iron and he thought I was low in brains.
“Folks don’t got iron in them. If they did, magnets would stick to them.”
I told him it was her thyroid that wasn’t working right so he went off to ask his grandma what that meant. Old Grandma Lillian Cramshaw knew a lot of strange things. We figured if my mom’s thyroid needed to get some iron in it the old grandma would know how to get it in there.
Walt was taking Ricky and me to pick my mom up at the little Tuxedo Hospital on Valentine’s Day. He suggested I make her a card. The only thing I could think of for a card was a drawing of a heart but I also thought there should be some sort of iron in this heart, too. Walt went into Suffern and picked up her heart shaped box of gooey chocolates, and by the time he returned I had decorated the rim of my heart shaped card with staples, in keeping with her theme of needing some iron. I knew staples weren’t exactly iron but I figured the idea was similar.
Rick and I jumped into the Chevrolet and he pulled from his coat pocket a little jar of some gritty, smelly stuff. He said it smelled like Christmas and shoved in under my nose. He was right – it had the thick odor of Christmas trees. He said his grandmother made it to help Tessie get iron back into her blood. When we arrived at the Tuxedo Hospital up on the hill over the village, we found Tessie sitting in a vinyl chair by a window in the sun. She was smoking a cigarette. She was annoyed. She had that “I’m fed up with the world” face on. She told us she wanted some tea before leaving, then she got up and crossed over to the white Formica coffee table and stamped out her cigarette in a plaid, bean bag ash tray. The top of the little bean bag had a metal ash tray in it. When she pressed the cigarette into the tray the bean bag squashed to one side. Walt got her a cup of hot water but before he could put the tea bag in it Ricky gave him the little jar of pine stink. He said Tessie was supposed to drink it in hot water. Walt took out his knife and dug a dab of gritty pine goo out of the jar and stirred it into the hot water. It didn’t mix in well but the water did turn a muddy color and it offered up a thick aroma of pine sap. Walt handed the cup to Tessie. She stared down into the nasty drink and shook her head.
Walt said, “Ricky’s grandmother says it’s good for your iron-poor blood.”
“What’s in it?”
“Looks like pine tar.”
“Tar?” Ricky said, “You mean like road tar?”
“No, it’s a sticky sap kind of tar”
We all stared at the strong bitter sludge in her plastic cup. Walt said, “It’s good for patching a hole in your boat, too.”
Tessie looked at him and said, “A hole in my boat?”
He said, “Yup. Sip a little, it can’t hurt you.”
She raised the cup to her lips and took the tiniest sip. She told us it was bitter and could use sweetening. Then she got brave and took a big sip. Suddenly she coughed violently and out flew a chunk of pine tar. It shot across the coffee table and landed like a bullet in the metal top of the bean bag ash tray. We all stared at it and Ricky shouted, “Good shot, Tessie! Happy Valentine’s Day!”