When I was younger and my family was still sorting through the layers of dust in the old farmhouse and the barn, one day we found the key to the tack box that had been hung on the wall. Or maybe they always knew where it was but no one actually opened it until this time, but when the rusted key turned and the little door flew open, we looked into a cabinet that had been trapped in time. Brushes for horses, little bottles of dried up ointments, hoof picks, and a big green tin box with the words BAG BALM on the side. My family oohed and ahhed at the finds and my Dad scooped up the bag balm jar and ripped off the lid. Inside it just looked like yellow petroleum jelly to me, and there were still fingerprints in it from the last time a Cunningham cow had some dry udders (that’s what it was for), as it was a salve for dry or chapped skin.
“These are probably your great grandfather’s fingerprints in here,” he said and explained the use for the petroleum-based product that came from Vermont. It was to protect any bare skin from getting chapped – cow udders after milking, or in the frigid winter months in New England. The family cow barn used to be off the back of the horse barn if I remember correctly, but I never saw it. This little tin was the only real remnants of cows, and the green label stuck in the subconscious of my mind for years.
Later when I was older, when Burts Bees and other “natural” companies were breaking into the chapstick scene, I recognized a little green tin one-day, and though the drawing of udders on the side of it had been replaced with a pair of human hands, the product was the same, now they just moved their focus to help chapped lips and hands instead of animal teats (there are not enough words for udders, guys).
Though I was a Burts Bees fan for years, but when they became too mainstream, their quality went down, and so did my reliance in their products, and so when I was home in Maine this past summer, in a little gift shop that promotes more local products, I saw another little basket of those famous green tins, now travel-sized, and so I snagged one.
Now as I sit in the middle of Florence in a library of the Renaissance, with sneezes and runny noses flourishing, I whip out a product that used to be slathered on cow udders like a little New England farmer that I quite possibly could have been, and all the Italians look at me like I’m crazy (no I’m joking – no one looks at anyone in here) but these tiny little mementos of home make my two lives merge together in the strangest ways.