Linden Tree Leaves

Genealogy and Ancestry Explorations

Nona’s Stories: The Buttermilk Sunburn Cure

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When we lived in North Texas, one of my earliest memories was when I was about five years old. Grandma Burns and my mother decided it was time I was enrolled in Sunday School at the Burns Chapel, which was about a mile and a half from where we lived. They felt I was old enough to walk that distance with Harry and Ralph, it being Spring.

So, for weeks they worked on my outfit I was to wear the Sunday Rev. John Connelly would be preaching at the chapel.

My dress was white, tiers of embroidered ruffles with a wide blue satin ribbon sash. A white hat with blue ribbon “streamers” and blue bows for my hair. I always, even as a baby, had dark hair, and wore it parted down the middle, front and back, braided in two braids. There was even a little white folding fan- (could get awfully hot in that little chapel) – with a spray of pink wild roses on it—and it hung on narrow blue ribbons around my neck—the better not to lose it.

To complete the outfit—white stockings (no one wore sox in those days)- and little black “Mary Jane” slippers, and a child-size white umbrella, with blue flowers and a blue ruffly around the edge.

On Friday morning Dad took me over to Grandma Burns’ house—she lived near the chapel, and she was to take me to Sunday School and church on Sunday and introduce me.

Rev. Connelly had married Bettie Thompson and Alford Falls and also my father and mother.

Grandma kept a black and white checked bonnet she had made for me at her house for me to wear when visiting her, and had knitted long black mittens that came well above my elbows, and had “half” fingers—coming to the first joints of my fingers—and were those mittens hot! They were knitted with “worsted” yarn.

Aunt Em—the big fat negro woman that was Grandma’s “help,” combed and braided my hair—brushing each side one hundred strokes—”to give it shine,” put my bonnet and mitts on me and sent me out to play while she and Grandma Burns cooked—for Rev. Connelly was coming home with us after “preaching” for Sunday dinner. At Grandma’s house “dinner” was at noon, and supper was at dusk—”candlelighting” time.

It soon got hot and I took off the bonnet and mitts.

When Aunt Em called me in at noon for dinner, she took one look at me and threw up her hands in horron and said, in a tone of voice like I had suddenly developed leprosy—”Ma’m” (as she always called Grandma) “come quick! This chile has gone and ruint her face and arms!” Grandma came, and they moaned over how I had “ruint” my face- (what I had done was get sunburned). Aunt Em kept calling on the “Lawd” to help us, and Grandma kept telling me I’d “look a sight” in that white dress—and “what would people think!” Aunt Em supplied the answer to that by saying “folks will think you is po’ white trash!” And, saying indignantly, “Us is quality folks!!”

The impression I got was to be sunburned was the unforgiveable sin, and marked you for life.

Aunt Em wouldn’t let me wash my face and hands, saying the water would “set” the sunburn, and instead, they smeared my face and neck, arms, and hands, with sour buttermilk—to “take the burn out” and keep me from “turning brown as an old shoe.”

I wasn’t allowed to go out of the house during the afternoon, and ever hour on the hour they applied more sour buttermilk. By night I was almost holding my nose I smelled so sour. I can’t remember any discomfort due to the sunburn—but I never smell sour milk to this day without remembering that experience.

I looked forward to bedtime for I was sure I would be allowed to wash that sour milk off as Grandma was very particular about her beds—but I wasn’t to be that lucky. At bedtime Aunt Em skimmed thick cream off a pan of milk and applied the gooey stuff liberally to my face and arms telling me “fine ladies uses cow cream on their faces for the good of their skins.”

They swathed me in one of Grandma’s flannel gowns so the sleeves would cover my hands, put a “night cap” over my hair to protect it. I had a hard time getting to sleep, but next morning to my surprise and their delight, not a bit of redness remained. Drastic as it was, the “cure” had worked, and I was redeemed!

I bathed and got rid of that sour smell, though I still imagined I could smell sour milk—so Aunt Em brushed my hair—not forgetting those hundred strokes for each side—and dusted a tiny bit of cinnamon on my hair “little girls don’t wear perfume—just a mite of spice to make them smell nice” – I got dressed and they both seemed well pleased. Aunt Em thanked the “Lawd,” Grandma took my hand—seeing to it I stayed under that little umbrella—she wasn’t taking any more chances of me getting sunburned.

So we walked the not far distance to the chapel.

It didn’t seem to me that Sunday School rated all that preparation and trouble– and I thought the sermon would never end, but finally it did and Rev. Connelly walked home with us for dinner.

Afterward, while they “visited” I was told I could go outside to play.

I had decided I’d wear the bonnet and mitts, preferring prevention to the “cure” but Aunt Em had some ideas of her own– she sewed the bonnet to my hair on top of my head so I couldn’t take it off, and sewed the mitts to my upper sleeves—”does you think I is gonna send you home to your mommy redder ‘n a beet?”

I kept my thoughts to myself; however, remembering the sour buttermilk ordeal and not wishing to go through that again.

Thereafter, weather permitting, I walked the mile and a half to Sunday School each Sunday with Ralph and Harry, joined along the way by other children.

Grandma was always at church and inspected me to see if I was sunburned, so, fearing she would take me home with her for a “buttermilk cure”, I was careful to use the little umbrella to ward off a sunburn.


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