By Ralph Hood
Mother was bad down on germs.
Daddy wasn’t overly fond of germs, but Mother was in a class by herself. Daddy didn’t worry about germs much, but he was afraid someone would give him unpasteurized milk. He didn’t drink restaurant milk unless it was in one of those individual containers. He was the only person I’ve ever known who looked for the health rating in a restaurant.
I thought Daddy’s fears rather quaint, since I had never seen a glass of unpasteurized milk in my life. Daddy, however, had grown up in the rural South in the early 1900s amid stories of smallpox, rabies and such. His mother, my grandmother, told those stories, and she was one heck of a storyteller. She once said that if anyone ever tried to kidnap me, I was to tell them I had smallpox. So far, I have had no need to use that tactic.
As near as I can remember, Daddy eased off on all his precautions sometime in the 1960s, when even he accepted the fact that the world had become somewhat civilized.
Mother, on the other hand, fought a constant and personal battle with regular, everyday germs. Hand washing was big on her list, and that didn’t mean just run a little water over them; she wanted hands scrubbed with soap. If someone in the house was sick, we all scrubbed with alcohol anytime we passed nearby.
Thanks to Mother, I grew up with weird ideas about germs. I lived in dreadful fear that my mouth would touch part of the water fountain. I thought of germs somewhat as I thought of electricity — all-powerful, invisible and faster’n greased lightning. I actually feared that germs spread so fast they could run upstream. (This was — without going into a lot of detail — very important if you were using an outhouse at camp!)
Other kids might share a candy bar, but not I. That candy bar had germs on it! (Oddly enough, Mother was one of the biggest food sharers of all times. In a cafeteria, she wanted everyone to have just a little bit—a “tee-niney” bit—of everything she had on her plate. I must have been 50 years old before I got up the courage to tell her no, dadgummit, if I wanted beets I woulda gotten some myself.)
Mother’s war against germs influences me to this day. In a public restroom, I crank the paper towel out before I wash my hands so I won’t have to touch that little crank handle with my clean hands (did you know there are germs all over that handle?). Then I wait for someone to come in or go out, so I can sneak through while the door is open. If it’s a small bathroom, I prop my foot in the door while I wash my hands. No way am I going to touch that filthy doorknob with my clean hands. I know what’s on that door — germs! Filthy germs! Probably green, diseased germs.
In my childhood I got germs a little confused with religion. Mother taught us a lot about God, and she said it was because she loved us so much. Since she also talked a lot about germs, I figured germs and God kinda went together. I knew, for example, that they were both everywhere, and both had powers beyond my understanding.
Just as I was dumfounded that God didn’t strike down those who didn’t say the blessing or go to church, I was amazed that germs didn’t instantly annihilate anyone who didn’t wash after using the bathroom. I once — to my absolute horror — saw a man hold a dollar bill in his teeth while he got change from his pocket. I stepped back and waited for his cataclysmic demise. It didn’t occur. I still don’t understand it. Didn’t Mother explain that money had more germs on it than anything except a toilet seat?
Now I wonder if all of this has been in vain. I read the other day that America’s devotion to cleanliness may work against us. Scientists say that we are so free of germs that we don’t develop immunities against them as do people in other countries. If you ever drank the water in Mexico, you know what they mean.
They can believe that if they want to. My mother taught me better.
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