by Deb Moore
We took a lot of baths together in the weeks after Hannah was born—she, her dad David, and I—all jammed into the tub together, stewing in a sort of family soup. Neither one of us wanted to be farther than a few feet from her or from each other. We were devoted. And as long as we were in the tub with her, Hannah didn’t mind being wet. She enjoyed balancing atop my stomach or being held to her father’s shaggy chest. On her own, though, she screamed at the water. She pumped her tiny fists and kicked her tiny feet. Nothing we tried made any difference. For the sake of family harmony, we bathed together. Of course, Hannah doesn’t remember any of this. She barely remembers her parents being married at all.
I have always loved baths. For many years, I felt about them the same way I feel now about naps: if a short one is good, a longer one must be better. Surely, there’s not a lot that a long, hot bath won’t remedy—an aching back, the need for a good cry, writer’s block, hairy knees.
For a time, I enjoyed a gigantic old claw-footed bathtub, positioned squarely in the middle of what felt like the world’s largest, most awkwardly-arranged bathroom. Carroll paid ten dollars for the tub at auction, at the estate sale of a man who used to raise his fist and chase us children on the sidewalk in front of Franklin’s Five and Dime. The old man was crooked over—like a question mark—and bad-tempered, and forty or more years afterward I can no longer remember if he chased us because he was crotchety, or if he was crotchety because we gave him reason to chase us.
Carroll had no idea that the tub and I shared an acquaintance—only that I was fond of bathing, and that he was fond of me. He pulled into the drive with the tub seated in the back of his pickup truck, resting on long two-by-fours and waiting to be admired. He was so anxious to show it off that he didn’t even come into the house.
“Come see what I got you,” he called from the porch, through the screen.
Looking down into the back of the truck, I saw an old porcelain-lined, claw and ball footed, cast-iron tub. It was a mess. Rust edged the openings for the spigot and handles, and ran in a long stain from the faucet to the bottom, just above and around the drain. The bottom was dotted in the gummy adhesive remains of non-slip appliqués in what probably had been—twenty five years earlier—a cheery blossom design. Decades of grime and soap scum encircled the tub walls like the rings of an ancient tree. But the rolled rim was undamaged, and all four feet were whole and without chips.
While we waited for friends to arrive to help us unload it, Carroll told me all about the auction, and how no one but he had bid for the old tub. As he spoke the name of the man who had died and left the tub behind, I remembered running—small and breathless—for the safety of my grandmother’s skirt tail.
My grandparent’s farm in the tiny Arkansas village of Jerusalem had no running water until the early eighties. Water—for drinking, cooking, and washing—was drawn by way of a narrow shaft well bucket, up through a hole in the back porch. My grandmother dumped the bucket into a wringer washing machine to wash clothes; for bathing, Grandpa fetched a galvanized tub from where it hung on the side of the house and placed it in the kitchen floor alongside the dining table. When my brother Butch and I visited for the summer, we bathed as they did—sitting in an inch of lukewarm, iron-scented water, even as the bucket for the next person heated on the stove—propane jets clicking, blue flames reflected in the soap bubbles that shimmied on the surface of the water. My grandmother scrubbed my head with Prell shampoo and used a bowl to ladle water over my hair and down my back. Even in summer, I shivered with every scoop.
To properly appreciate a bath, there has to be a willingness to steep in one’s own juices, all the parts simmering in one pot—wings and thighs, neck and breasts—even while stuff in the subconscious bubbles to the surface. Muscle memory kicks in, and the working part of the brain isn’t focusing any more on whatever it is that the body is doing. While lathering and rinsing, or shaving and conditioning, the mind is off doing other things; it’s reimagining a different future than the one originally planned, or it’s contemplating the past.
Carroll and I had been on the lookout for an old tub for the Threlkeld house. We installed the big claw-foot in a bedroom we didn’t need, turning the room into a second bathroom that we did. Directly across the hall was what had been one of three doors leading into the kitchen. Before sealing that door shut, it was possible to stand at the kitchen sink and toss a sandwich or piece of fruit—underhanded and without much force at all—and watch it fall into the bathtub.
It didn’t make sense to have a kitchen with more ways in and out than there were cabinets, so we sacrificed the one doorway to function. In the hallway outside the new bathroom, the door frame that had led to the kitchen remained, but we sheet-rocked over the entryway and had a large, plate-glass mirror cut to fit. That mirror would forever after confuse drunken party guests, but anyone bathing in the claw-foot could look through the open bathroom door and across the hall to see herself, there in that gigantic raised tub, steaming like one clam atop a bucket full.
The summer after Carroll found the claw-foot, my grandmother underwent surgery to remove a tumor in her brain. After she was well enough to return home but not well enough to take care of herself, we all took turns—her children and her grandchildren—staying with my grandparents out at the farm. My grandfather hadn’t been well for a long time, and once she got sick, they deteriorated together. We brought out a live-in nurse to stay during the week, but then we took over on Saturday and Sunday.
After running her bath, I walked with my grandmother to the edge of the tub and left her there to undress and climb over and into the water. I waited outside the cracked bathroom door for her to say that she was ready. Leaning against the wall, I could see into what used to be my uncle Pat’s bedroom, but had for years now been my grandmother’s work room. Her sewing machine was there, as were the rows of shoe boxes holding Simplicity sewing patterns—filed upright so that the pictures faced the front: tall elegant women standing with one delicately pointed foot shifted slightly in front of the other. I knew I could walk over and pull any one of the envelopes from the box and it might be the pattern to a dress, a coat, or a pair of summer shorts my grandmother had once sewn for me or for my mother, back when we—all of us—looked more like the women painted on the patterns: vibrant, capable, and strong.
The bookshelves were stacked high with old Pac-o-Fun magazines that held instructions for transforming plastic bleach bottles into patio lanterns and pipe cleaners into Christmas ornaments. Overhead, Grandmother’s quilt frame swung forlornly from the ceiling. We all had quilts she had made, hand-stitched and assembled from left-over fabric into patterns that sounded like the titles of poems: Double Wedding Ring, Crown of Thorns, Lincoln’s Log Cabin.
I listened for any hint of trouble as I imagined my grandmother removing her housecoat and using the rail my stepdad had installed to climb into the tub. It took a very long time.
“You can come in,” she called, finally. It was no invitation.
I slipped through the door, talking, keeping my voice bright, and trying to behave as though I had been helping her bathe all our life together. I sat alongside her, on the edge of the tub.
“I’m going to help you with your bath, okay, Grandma?”
She was sitting in the tub, knees drawn toward her chest, shoulders forward. With one hand, she held onto the edge of the tub; her other arm was folded across her breasts, hand over heart in allegiance—to modesty, or to lost propriety.
I wet and lathered the washcloth.
“Hannah won a big art competition at school,” I said. “She got first place out of the whole school.”
“She sure did.”
I ran the soapy rag up and down the length of first one arm and then the other. Flaps of loose skin hung from her biceps—the result of old age, the cancer, chemo. There were so many things in competition to make her disappear.
“She’s coming up on Sunday, to have lunch with us,” I said. “Won’t that be nice?”
I scrubbed the soles of her feet. I was surprised that her toes and my own were so similar in size and shape. I wondered how it could be that I had never seen my grandmother’s bare feet.
“What’d you say, Grandma?”
“I sure would like to see her.”
I wrung the suds out over her back, and counted the knobby bones of her spine.
“You know what? She misses you too,” I said.
Then I washed her hair—gently, remembering at the last minute the incision hidden there, just over her left ear. She turned her face to the ceiling. I used the hand shower to rinse the shampoo away. I smiled at her, but her eyes were closed.
The water smelled of iron.
Even if bathing weren’t already one of my favorite things, my big claw-footed tub was reason enough to celebrate bath time. Sitting in it, immersed in water up to my chin, I could make the world line up the way it was supposed to, even after Carroll fell in love with someone else, even after he moved out.
Many lovely, healing moments happened in that tub. Never mind that the hot water handle was always falling off and into the water, or that my water bills were enormous. Never mind that the tub was the love offering of a man whose love had not been true or that I now had two failed marriages to my credit. Twenty minutes in that tub and I could make things begin to look right again. I could imagine a new beginning—not today, but someday. It was rejuvenating, that tub. And when I pulled the plug, I could stand and look across the hall into the mirrored faux doorway and see myself, rising from the steamy depths like Venus on the half shell.
The tub in the house in which I now live is shorter, and more narrow than I would have thought possible. I sit in this tub with my legs splayed out like a frog; there’s no leaning back for the leisurely soak. Which is just as well, I suppose, because sitting in this tub for any period of time makes me crooked and crotchety. I can hear the water trickling out around the plug, which doesn’t appear to be properly seated. Like the sound of children arguing—it doesn’t hurt anyone, but it’s irritating to listen to. I can’t hear the sound of my own internal conversation.
With an abbreviated tub like this one, I might as well stick to showers. I can’t soak up the good stuff in a tub that’s too short, or too narrow, or that loses water when the drain is supposed to be shut tight. A squat little tub like that is good enough for personal hygiene purposes, but I miss sitting in a tub large enough to make its own waves while steam coaxes the wallpaper loose. I miss stepping out and onto dry land again, my head clear and my pores wide open.
Instead, I remember: Me at twenty-five, pregnant, and in the bath. I’m more out than in, really—with my breasts, newly ponderous and resting on my belly, while the belly rests, like a package, in my lap. I’m so big, it’s hard to get into the tub, and even more difficult to climb out again. But it’s worth it—every bit—for that half hour of partial weightlessness, for a reprieve from the gravitational force of two hundred pounds of pending maternity. Later, when I begin lactating, I point my breast toward the far wall and shoot mother’s milk across the length of the tub. More often than not, I hit the bull’s-eye David has drawn in soap on the tile.
He laughs and urges, “Do it again!”
Deb Moore is a recent graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Queens University Charlotte in North Carolina. Her work has appeared in AY Magazine, Harvest, Nebo, Mundane Jane, Nuclear Fiction, Recession Fabulous, The ATU Writer and Tales of the South, as well as contributions to numerous titles from the lifestyle and instructional publisher, Leisure Arts.