Friday, May 29, 2009

The soap affliction


I'm beginning to miss an old misery—the worrying up a "Small Potatoes" column once a month. I think it may have been an exquisite misery—nothing like spending up-close and personal time with my dentist. Perhaps I'm ready for a comeback—not a full-on comeback but perhaps a semi one, perhaps an occasional musing small enough to fit on the head of a pin. And golly-gee, just like that, one started to roll, a musing about soap.

For a long time, I wasn't aware of my soap fixation. It likely started on the Saturday mornings when Mom, before she left for work, laid out the program for my two kid sisters and me: "Don't even think about leaving this house until you've done the Saturday cleaning and weekly wash."

So, after in double-time we vacuumed, dusted, Ajaxed all things white, and scrubbed the kitchen floor with ample ammonia to clear our noses, we'd go to the basement to do the wash.

We had a modern Maytag, one with a powerful wringer that occasionally latched onto fingers momentarily carelessly monitored, and it began to briskly pull them through until something, I think it was audible—the screaming kid—triggered a safety release. Soap was major. It was hard times back then as well, and to save a few pennies Mom made ours large, lye-based yellow bars as hard as railroad tracks, so we first had to shred them with the kitchen cabbage shredder. There were slivery remnants that didn't dissolve and clung here and there no matter how hard the washing snapped in the wind. We'd search out these remnants and pluck them off before we got to school, where some hooting kid was sure to spot them.

After Mom's soap was behind us, I took store soap for granted until my long string of mid-life airplane days, when bad weather or clients' plans meant spending many nights in motels where soap came in complimentary bars meant to be used once and left behind. My frugal upbringing would kick in and trigger pangs of guilt. "What happens to them now?" I'd wonder. I'd picture mounds of them down in the laundry room where I hoped—but doubted—the washer-lady laboriously shredded them to wash the sheets and towels.

Soap, however, didn't tun into a self-afflicted affliction until after World War II, and I read a long and awful tale about the Holocaust. A piece of the story lodged in a tiny brain switchback and didn't flush through, a piece about five or six prisoners in a Nazi camp who managed to conceal one small bar of soap. They conscientiously shared this treasure, and when it was one's turn, one used it sparingly before painstakingly patting it dry and passing it along.

As the bar got smaller and smaller, everyone tried not to be the unfortunate one in whose hands it didn't break into itsy-bitsy pieces, but instead it got thinner and thinner until it vanished.

This lodged paragraph only broke loose and began to flush through the works a few years ago. One day, as I lathered in the shower and I noted that my bar of Dove was close enough to Motel 6 size to toss, I was reluctant to do it.

Use it a little bit longer, I urged myself. And I used it a little bit longer, and then a little bit longer, and it got thinner and then even thinner until it rested like an oblong communion wafer in my hand.

I've yet to make a bar of soap actually vanish, but on the bottom shelf of the bathroom cabinet there's a modest collection of communion-thin wafers. And thus I muse: One of these days, one of my kids will open that cabinet and see those wafers and wonder, "What in heaven's name are these?"

Betty Bell, a longtime employee of the Idaho Mountain Express, retired earlier this year. Among her many duties at the newspaper, she wrote a monthly column called "Small Potatoes."

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