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An Uncle's Lesson: Some Things 'Best Left Alone'

In the summers of the 1960s, Lee Mottern's family often visited their relatives in Elizabethton, Tenn. That's where his Uncle Abraham and Aunt Hattie May Little had a big house — but no children of their own.

Talking about those visits recently with his girlfriend, Linda Eldredge, Mottern, 54, said that his aunt and uncle's house always smelled of "good food and cigar smoke."

And Mottern says that during one visit, he noticed that each night around bedtime, his uncle would begin a strange ritual.

"He'd go into the kitchen, and he'd get this big, ugly, brown bottle down from the highest cabinet — and get this spoon. And he would pour this liquid into the spoon, and take a big dose of it."

Mottern was only around seven years old at the time — "So, everything's a mystery," he said.

And one night, his uncle caught Mottern looking at him while he was holding the bottle.

"I said, 'What is that, anyway, Uncle Abe?'"

"That's my smart medicine," his uncle answered.

Mottern asked if he could smell the potion.

Uncle Abraham told him that the medicine was too powerful. "It would keep you awake all night," he said.

But Mottern wanted to know what the medicine was like. He asked, "Does it taste like cherries?'"

Mottern recalls his uncle answering, "It's better than that."

"I said, 'Come on, Uncle Abe. Let me have a little taste of it,'" Mottern says.

Uncle Abraham said, "Your Granny Ruth would — I don't know what she would do when she found out I gave you some of the smart medicine. You think you can handle it?"

Mottern assured him that he could. And his uncle agreed, telling him to get a small spoon — a little boy couldn't handle much of the smart medicine.

"So, I'm standing there like a baby bird, with my mouth open," Mottern says. "And he says, 'All right, here it comes.'"

And I swallowed it — and it was awful."

"Well, what was it?" Eldredge asks.

Mottern says that as it turned out, "My Uncle Abraham would take a big old spoon of castor oil every night, before he went to bed, for therapeutic reasons.

"Ahh," Eldredge says, laughing.

"I'll never forget that," Mottern says. "Because in a way, it did make me smarter — because some things that look pretty good on the surface, might be something best left alone."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Nadia Reiman. Recorded in partnership with KWBU. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

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