My son has intense eczema. I think something in his diet triggers the outbreaks, but I haven’t been able to isolate a particular food. Some days he’ll get blotchy patches after dairy, on other days he'll have a big flare up after wheat, and then there are the times he’ll scratch himself bloody after raspberries. I should take him to the allergist but two Christmases ago we got a cat and the allergist gave him 30 little jabs to determine that yes, he was in fact allergic to cats. By jab 10 he was screaming in my arms, by 20 he was telling me he hated me and could never trust me again, by 30 I was in tears. Needless to say, I’m hesitant to see the allergist. In the meanwhile I keep him moisturized, keep his nails trimmed short, and reluctantly apply various prescription strength topical steroids.
Frustrated one morning after he’d itched through a particularly rough night I asked Gemma, whose OTC recommendation had recently killed my oncoming cold cold, what else she thought I could use on his skin. Try coconut oil, she told me.
After twenty-three years in America I had forgot, but coconut oil was what my sisters and I had used on our bodies, including our faces, as children. The oil wasn’t what we’d have preferred, but body lotion was a luxury we couldn’t afford all the time. Coconut oil was cheap and my mother not one to suffer vain, foolish daughters. I couldn’t stand the slick of it, and how because it took so long to be absorbed, grains of blown sand stuck to your legs. I never thought of my glistening skin as well moisturized, just black and shiny. When sometimes after Saturday market my mother did bring home a small bottle of Jergens or Palmers lotion, its demise was swift. Saturday evening and Sunday everybody including my two older brothers applied liberally. By Monday, it went missing. On Tuesday or Wednesday the bottle was found, cut in half or sometimes flayed, without even the scent of lotion remaining. And back to coconut oil.
Gemma’s suggestion made good sense. As girls we fussed about the oil, but my sisters and I, each now over forty, have pretty smooth, unblemished skin. My son’s baby skin is worn dry and scaly in spots, raw and broken almost everywhere else. Fortunately, having rediscovered the village remedies I'd rejected in childhood (sometimes after they'd come into homeopathic vogue, or I'd seen them embraced in Vogue), I had the best coconut oil right in my pantry. Forget organic; my mother, still in Trinidad, makes fresh oil from dried coconuts she collects in our backyard. I cook with it, but long accustomed to Keri and Kiehls had never thought to use it on my son’s skin.
I started massaging him with my mother’s oil after his evening baths and before he dressed in the morning. He smells delicious after a rubdown, like coconut drops or coconut bake, like my mother’s cooking. He wants to take a bite out of himself. Most importantly, his skin is so much better. He isn’t cured, but the oil soothes his distressed skin more than any other lotion we had tried.
The other night after bath the coconut oil wasn’t within reach. His skin was calm so I grabbed the ointment we’d previously slathered him in. “Hello, Mr. Aquaphor,” I said without thinking, or maybe thinking to humor my child, “Sorry we haven’t used you in a long time. I hope you haven’t been feeling lonely.” The goop was melted and warm from sitting undisturbed on the radiator for the last week. I started at Mase’s feet and looked up when I heard a sniffle. “What is it, baby?”
He squeezed the tub of Aquaphor to his naked chest. “I’m sorry, Mr. Aquaphor. Grandma Ule’s coconut oil helps my itching more than you. I am so sorry. You used to be my best. Mommy.”
I would have laughed except he was crying for real. Look at that, I thought as I hugged him, more sense at four than I had as a teenager to choose the remedy that worked over the fancy label. And then I still had to go and spoil it by giving the honorific to the tub of Aquaphor.