The Great Sassafras Debacle

Often, my sister Kathi & I got into uncontrollable laughing fits. They would come out of the blue, based on nothing at all. Or, from incidents like The Great Sassafras Debacle. One Saturday in Great Falls, the rain poured down in hellacious sheets. We’d spent hours drawing, listening to records, dancing & telling each other stories. We were bored.

Suddenly I got a brainstorm: “Let’s make sassafras tea!!”
“How?” my 10 year old sister wondered.

“You pull up young sassafras trees, cut the outer part off the roots, boil them in hot water. I read about it in a library book on how hippies live off the land. There’s some growing in a ditch up by the Nichols’s house.”

I often baby-sat for the Nichols, a young couple with two little sons. Mr. Nichols was a lawyer. His wife was German. They had all sorts of books. I’d read “Mein Kampf” in two evenings while sitting for their sound-asleep boys. Manias help if you want to Speed Read!

Kathi & I put on our plastic rain hats, the kind that fold up & fit into a coat pocket. We pulled on rubber boots. Levi’s & sweat shirts kept us warm as we ran up Ellsworth Avenue, searching for magical sassafrass bushes.

There’s one! No, three!” I shouted.

We figured it would be cinchy to wrench such small saplings out of the mud. I took ahold of one, Kathi grabbed another. We pulled. We grunted, we tugged. I fell into the mud. Kathi burst out laughing. I caught the fever, both of us giggling like mad.

We would not give up–both of us had inherited the Elder stubborn streak.

Using bare hands, we dug in the slimy clay. Wrenched again. I looked up, toward the highway. “Oh, no! Mr. Nichols!”

The young attorney often worked long hours, including Saturdays. He was heading for his house & turned to glance at an odd sight down the street. His eyeballs were bugging out, seeing Kathi & me covered in mud, laughing & pulling on tiny trees.

Oh my God! He’ll never hire me to baby-sit again!”

“We’re mud creatures!” Kathi screamed. All of a sudden, both our sassafrass roots let go, throwing us back into a huge mud puddle.

That’s it,” I yelled. “Two has to be enough for two cups of tea.”

We ran back home, down to the basement double sinks beside the washing machine. We took off all our clothes & scrubbed them with hot water. I hung them up on the inside clothesline while Kathi wiped our boots off & put them in the proper place: beside the back door.

We washed off the roots, making them pure. Snorting with laughter, my sister & I went upstairs. I put on a pot of water to boil. Then we went to our bedrooms to get dry clothing on. Just as I was dropping the roots into the hot water, Mom came in the front door:
“Come help me with these damned groceries. It’s like The Flood out there!”  “Lordie!” Kathi whispered, laughing wildly.
“OK, Mama,” I answered in my best imitation of Eddie Haskell (“Leave It To Beaver”)

My sister & I dashed downstairs & retrieved two wet bags full of food. Our tea was nearly brewed. It smelled wonderful. “Tea!” I shouted. Kathi burst into peals of laughter.

It only took us 2 hours to make this.” I was laughing so hard, I fell down.

Mom appeared in the doorway of the kitchen. Seeing us falling all over the place, she snapped “Hebephrenic Schizophrenia.”

Our mother had worked with mental patients at a prison hospital in Pueblo, Colorado after being an RN in a Denver pediatric ward in the late 1940s. She often pronounced my sister & me insane with one or another type of mental illness she’d learned about working with mental patients.

Kathi & I  helped her unload groceries, then sat down to enjoy our bitter, unsweetened sassafrass drink. Never again, we vowed! Tea bags from here on out.

Kathi, MB, Susan Lake Fairfax 
My sister (back right) & her two best friends at Lake Fairfax.
She was a little older here than the day of the Sassafrass Debacle.
The 1960s!


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