Clara Raglan was a real person. When I met her she was in her eighties, short and round with two wispy gray braids pinned up on her head. Her knees hurt and she walked with a rolling gait, trailing her fingers along the wall of the house where she lived in San Francisco. I had come to see if I could help her knees with acupuncture. When the first treatment brought down the swelling and lessened her pain, I began going to her house weekly. I would put six or eight thin needles in Clara's legs and arms while she lay on her bed. After the treatment, I would curl up in the big pink armchair in the corner of her bedroom, and she would tell me stories about her childhood. She told me about her Granny who had been a slave on a big plantation in Georgia, about hoodoo, and herbs, and the woods that she loved. My favorite story was how she had saved her sister's life by boiling up willow in the pig pot.
Clara lived into her early nineties. For many years after her death her stories lay quietly inside me. I was working as an acupuncturist and herbalist, and raising two small children. When I began writing, I wanted to share with others the willow bath story. I quickly found out I didn't know enough to turn Clara's story into a book. At the UC Berkeley library I searched through old photographs that revealed hundreds of details of life at the turn of the century. I read stories told decades ago by African Americans, written the way they were spoken. At the Library of Congress I listened to the Slave Narrative tapes, recordings made in the 1930's and 40's of old people who had been slaves when they were young. I visited Tennessee, to talk with friends whose family had been farmers for over a hundred and fifty years. Listening to them brought back memories for me of my own lean years growing up on ten acres surrounded by cattle ranchers.I delved into the uses of herbs in folk medicine. I found that willow bark has been used for several thousand years all over the world as a cure for fever, inflammation and pain. At the end of the nineteenth century, it was synthesized in Europe and named aspirin. Today, Americans take 16,000 tons of aspirin each year - eighty million pills worth!
I let all this information settle down in me with Clara's story. After awhile, I began creating scenes and dialog to make her story grow into a book. And as I worked, I found my way back to Clara as a child, full of longings and dreams, struggles and joys. Some of them are hers, some I have imagined. But I hope they all are true to her nature and her times.