There is a healing power in being cared for, a power that mothers seem to possess innately. As children, we believed that a mother’s touch could cure us of any ailment or illness. Whether pain was internal or external, mothers always seemed to know precisely how to relieve us of it.
In these scenarios, it was always the thought that counted most.
For marginalized communities in particular, this process often requires mothers to simultaneously act as cultural gatekeepers. Passed down and learned from their mothers, these rituals, and the pride in them, become intergenerational. Without this preservation of practices, these home remedies, and our confidence in their healing, may otherwise be lost.
From Canada to Ecuador, we sourced stories from women about the home remedies that were prevalent in their own lives.
While vapor rub and onions seemed to be favorites in curing a broad spectrum of illnesses, the diverse backgrounds from which these cures stem from just goes to show that women around the world are a lot more closely linked than we might think.
The following stories are told to show how healing reaches across generations. Please do not use these stories as evidence of scientific research, medical advice, or treatment.
On tackling colds and flus
Design by Brittany England
From a young age, my mother always emphasized the importance of our Mexican culture. Whenever we were sick, she always had a remedy she learned from her mother to help us feel better.
When we had a cold, she would have us sit down on a chair with a bucket of very hot water at our feet. She would spread vapor rub on the soles of our feet and have us dip them in the water.
While our feet were soaking, we had to drink a hot cinnamon tea. We would always feel better after this. I’m open to trying it again for my own children in the future.
— Amy, Chicago
Besides dousing me in vapor rub, [my mother] used to make me sleep sitting upright because it apparently alleviated the onset of a cough almost immediately.
I would just use it as an excuse to read past my bedtime.
— Caylee, Chicago
The power of vapor rubVapor rub has eucalyptus essential oil, which helps loosen up the mucus in your chest. To read more about home remedies for phlegm, click here.
Growing up in a Nigerian home, I grew up with a holistic understanding of wellness. One common cold cure that my mother passed on to me is this: fill a basin with hot water (not warm, hot) and mix in a teaspoon of Vicks Vaporub, then grab a dish towel.
Wet the dish towel with the mixture and place it over the top of the basin. Put your face onto the cloth and breathe deeply for 5 to 10 minutes. This will clear your sinuses and undoubtedly have you breathing right again.
It has yet to be published in any health journals I’ve read, but I hold it as a sacred remedy.
— Sarah, New York City
When we were younger, whenever one of my sisters or I would start to feel sick, my mom would have us gargle salt water. If we had a sore throat, runny nose, or any flu-like symptom, we would sometimes wait to tell her because we knew the first thing she’d do is reach for the Morton Salt.
Her mother always had her do it, and she believed that salt killed the bacteria in the throat.
It did always seem to work, or at least help. I guess I’ll eventually make my children do it too since I don’t want the burden of ending this superstitious cycle.
— Charlotte, New York City
My mother lives by ginger. She’s always been a big advocate for starting from within to rectify an issue. I’ve never known a time when there wasn’t a freshly brewed pitcher of ginger beer in the fridge. It’s honestly her cure-all when cramping, congested, or groggy.
She grinds up the ginger with lime and keeps straining until smooth. She then adds cloves and drinks it daily. She claims it helps with strengthening her immune system. The stronger the batch, the better!
— Hadiatu, Chicago
My mom is Greek and swears by hot red wine for colds. Mind you, “hot red wine” does not mean mulled wine, but putting any red you bought at the grocery store in a mug and microwaving it for 30 seconds.
She believes the alcohol cures you, but I think it just makes it more bearable. I loved it because it meant I was able to drink when I was younger.
— Jamie, Chicago
On erasing cuts and bruises
For bruises, we would eat an onion (or any red vegetable), because it was believed that those were the ones that went directly to red blood cells and helped reproduce them.
Eating an onion actually did help [me], but the side effect is that if you work out or sweat you smell bad because you’re basically sweating out the onion.
— Gabriella, Guayaquil, Ecuador
Growing up, my mother always tried to heal us naturally as often as she could. She carried and respected the traditions passed down to her from her great-grandparents. I often bruised easily or ended up with small cuts from playing outside with my boy cousins.
My mom would use leftover potato skins to heal my wounds. Potatoes help wounds heal faster by reducing inflammation. They also help break down hyperpigmentation so they’re great for post-wounds [scarring] as well.
— Tatiana, New York City
On soothing ear infections
I was raised solely by my mother. She was born in Mexico and came to the States at a young age. Some of the remedies she grew up with are ones we still use today.
When we had an ear ache, she would wash our ears with warm water and follow by putting a capful of peroxide in our ears until it fizzed. Once it stopped fizzing, we would let it drain out.
— Andrea, Houston
No one was allowed to smoke inside the house, but whenever someone started to get an ear infection, my mom would light a cigarette and put it inside their ear to relieve the itchiness.
I don’t think it actually works, even though she and a number of the older generation of women I’ve met all swear by it.
— Paloma, Chicago
On eliminating headaches
Southern Italian practices are entrenched in superstition, paganism, and rituals. Whenever I have a headache, my mother insists it’s from malocchio, the evil eye, and performs an oil and water ritual.
She reads, much like others would with tea leaves, how the oil is moving against the water. If there is the presence of malocchio, another prayer ensues to rid the person of “the curse.” To be honest, it works!
— Elisabetta, Toronto
One remedy that my mom swears by is using vapor rub on your temples, the back of your ears, and the back of your neck. After you apply the vapor rub, peel an onion and grill the peels until they are warm and soft. Once soft, put salt on top of the vapor rub. Then, put the warm onion peels on your temples.
She does this anytime she has a headache. She learned it from her mother, and it’s been passed down for a few generations.
— Maria, Chicago
On purging skin-deep issues
In Honduras, my mom would use ashes from firewood when her siblings had breakouts or rashes on their skin. The ashes would apparently lift bacteria, chemicals, and dirt to the skin’s surface so that when the ashes were washed away, so were the toxins.
It’s similar to how people now use charcoal face masks for issues like excess oil.
— Amelia, Chicago
For mosquito bites, my mom would hold half a lime over the flame of the stove. Once the lime was charred, she would let it cool only slightly, as it needs to be fairly hot to work. Then, she would rub the charred part on the bite — the more juice, the better.
This sped up the recovery process and eliminated the itch. I definitely still do this today because it’s so effective and cheap. My mom learned this from her mom and her mom-in-law. They all utilized this little trick.
— Julyssa, Chicago
Home remedies for the faceCharcoal masks are a popular skin care ingredient, but do your research before applying any kind of ash or acidic liquid on your face. For tips on clearing your skin, click here.
On relieving cramps and stomach aches
My mom would swear on a tea made from onion skins that her mother and grandmother used to make her that would relieve period pains. As a picky (and naive) teenager, I always refused her offer and popped one too many Midol pills.
But one day, my pain was too unbearable, so I gave in. To my shock, it worked.
Sure, it didn’t taste amazing and I sweetened it a bit with honey, but the onion tea soothed my menstrual cramps faster than any pill. Since then though, I’ve found other better tasting teas that do the trick, but this one experience will always stay in my book as one of the many definitions of “mother knows best.”
— Bianca, New York City
Passed down from my great grandmother, I was given spoonfuls of castor oil for various reasons, but mostly as a way to help stomach aches. It tastes awful, but it definitely works for me. Personally, it usually takes two to three spoonfuls for it to reach its fullest potential.
— Shardae, Detroit
Healing and slowing down, it’s the thought that counts
In today’s modern world, mothers from diverse backgrounds carry the responsibility of preserving ancient, cultural home remedies — a practice in humility, in slowing down, and returning to our roots.
Growing up, my own mother swore by spoonfuls of honey for soothing sore throats, lemon juice for curing cystic acne, and sliced potatoes for warding off fevers. She relied on these home remedies, passed down from her own mother, before reaching for anything else. Sometimes these remedies worked, though oftentimes they didn’t, but that didn’t matter.
In these scenarios, it was always the thought that counted most.
Western culture has commodified wellness, especially in the United States where companies and organizations continue to prevail over healthcare. In the process, we’ve grown accustomed to immediate gratification rather than complete, patient healing.
Perhaps then it is our mothers, rather than the remedies themselves, that truly possess the power to heal us. By reaching out to them and hearing their stories, we are able to discover the parts of our histories that remain sacred.