My maternal grandpa was from the poorest part of Birmingham, Alabama. His birth father died in a dynamite factory explosion when he was two years old, and his mother remarried a few years after that. Even with a new man, their family was poorer than poor. Some winters, they’d resort to eating shoe leather out of desperate hunger. He had one pair of overalls, and later became an expert marksman out of necessity (he could hit a squirrel between the eyes from 30 yards out). He climbed out of poverty via the GI Bill which he used to get an education here at USC, and then a job as a salesman of medicinal gasses to airline companies and hospitals. He didn’t much like talking about when he was poor – it was not his proudest moment. The one thing he did enjoy talking about from back then was family. Even when you have no money, you have family. As his sister June put it, “it never felt like we were poor. We had so much love in the household.”
My mom imbued this same sense of family on me through different stories she’d heard as a small girl from her dad, my grandpa. I’d heard this story before, but it had slipped to the back of my mind. Driving home from lunch one sunny afternoon, I ask her and my dad if they have any stories about the inexplicable that I could use for my folklore project. My mom starts:
“When your great uncle – great, great uncle – had… his leg amputated, it was itching itching itching, the stump was itching. So his family said, ‘go dig up the stump and see if there’s anything wrong with it. And he did and it was covered with ants. And so he properly buried it and the itching stopped. And that was a common belief of the time, in Alabama among Christians a couple generations ago.”
I love this story because it plays on so many different levels. On the one hand, it’s a story of a very strange folk belief that has found its way into mainstream medicine. Phantom pains are a common phenomenon in the paraplegic world. To stop it, many doctors put a mirror up to the intact limb, making it look like their missing limb is still there. Almost immediately, the pains stop, and even when the mirror is removed, the pains are not felt. On the other hand, this story works through the familial lens, as it provides a rather sincere snapshot into life in rural Alabama so many years ago. In a strange way, it makes perfect sense to dig up the withered limb and clean it off to stop the itching. It’s not like there was any other information out there, they just did what they thought would work and it worked.