I can vouch for only two people who take baths: my sister-in-law Mary and me. Not that I diss the shower — I take one every other day on shampoo morning. If I have nostrils and sinuses blocked with concrete-like mucous in February, I’ll steam up the bathroom and stand under a hot shower until I can breathe again. Showers are good, but why, in the last fifty years, have they become the ne plus ultra for personal cleanliness? Especially, as was not the case on the farm when my father was a boy, we all have hot running water?
The McArthurs took stand-up baths daily, but Saturday was full-frontal, and dorsal , bath night. The tin bathtub was pulled into the kitchen, water was pumped, then heated on the wood stove. There was a bathing hierarchy: Gammy first, then my aunts Charlotte and Franny, then my father, his father, and last into the cooling suds, the Hired Man. I think this was typical for farming families in the twenties and thirties, and I cheer for my grandmother when they moved to the city and hot running water.
Mary learned about the bliss of the bathtub from my mother-in-law Pat. Every night, about nine o’clock, Pat would retire to the bathtub, her hairdo protected, and have a leisurely soak with a romance novel, soothing away the slings and arrows of an underpaid Catholic school teacher’s life. It was a daily event with a capital E, never skipped on the family calendar, sacrosanct. In fact, Pat considered showers as a guys -only enterprise. The most prim of women, she once told me: “Margaret, a woman can’t be really clean unless she takes a bath.” It’s a tribute to my innocence and her tact that it took me five years to figure out what she meant. (Dear mother-in-law in heaven, a woman can be really clean if she unhooks the shower head and blasts her lady bits, but well, you didn’t know about such things.)
Mary built on her mother’s instruction and raised the level of the bathwater. She’s the only person I know who springs the big bucks for the new Catherine Coulter or Danielle Steele in hardcover, and to her niece’s bemused eyes: wraps them in plastic wrap so they don’t suffer steam or water damage. When she and Ron built the house where she now bathes in Cleopatra-like splendor, Ron got a swell separate tiled shower, and she bought a sybaritic Whirlpool — the jets and the water temperature can be adjusted with a little toe-twiddling. There’s a window at tub level with a view of field and forest, Hollywood lighting over the marble double vanity, the same Saran-wrapped novels. It’s a temple to the bath.
It failed her after six months, but she had a warranty. The Whirlpool dude came out and told her that the motor was blown, an almost impossible failure. Then he asked her about her bathing style and she said something like: “Two and a half hours a day, seven days a week.” That was pushing the machine beyond its limits, but she got her replacement motor. A couple of years ago she welcomed me into her watery paradise ,and I emerged clean, relaxed and drowsy a half hour later. She exclaimed:”But you just went in there! Only half an hour?!”
I have the cheapest builder fiberglass shower/bathtub combo popular in the early eighties. Come to think of it, with the notoriously rusty ‘Ville water, I should probably leap up and scrub it this minute, but of course I won’t. That tacky tub kept me going over twenty years of child-raising and career stress and failure. I’d lower my (considerably younger) bod into the warm tub, and lie on my back emptying all thoughts of Power Points, gas bills, Tween brattiness, and the curse of that navy Ford Escort. Scrubbing happened. Then I’d flip over onto my tummy and just lie still: if I ever prayed, it was then.
Honor as infant hated her bathtime: her tiny body squirmed in fury as I attempted to apply the Johnson’s Baby Shampoo and caress her clean in the kitchen sink at 1208 W. Lexington. I can’t believe that I figured out the obvious. In that apartment we didn’t have a shower, only the classic claw-footed bathtub.
When Lou came home from work we filled up the tubbie, he sat down in it, and I handed him his three-month old daughter. Magic ensued. I wish I had a picture of that baby, her blonde ringlets emerging, lying against her father’s chest. But what I remember best is Lou’s adoption of her as a bath toy — he’d swirl her around in the warm eddies, making her giggle. He’d dip her up and down, wash her hair, then take her in a long trip around the tub’s perimeters. She cooed, he beamed.
You all know that I’m a DIY person on any project that doesn’t involve sweat or skill. I mix Dead Sea salts with bergamot essential oils. I’ve turned out bars of goat milk soap in Silpat molds in the shape of cartoon flowers. I need to figure out what to do with two pounds of dried rosebuds from Romania. But that’s just fun, although I swear by my eucalyptus soap in a hot shower in a Chicago February.
Wanna see some bathtub porn?
This copper beauty:
I hear the usual dissidents:
- “Oh, yuck, you’re sitting in your own filth.” OK, if you’re so Calvinist that you think you’re filthy, do it the Japanese way and take a shower before or after your spell in the tub.
- “I’ll have to clean the bathtub.” Well, yeah. My daughter said that one of the best things about staying in an hotel is that you can take a bath and someone else will clean up. She leaves a nice housekeeper’s tip.
- “It takes longer than a shower.” That’s the point: when you have the time, make the time.
- “I get cleaner in a shower.” Not. Washing feet is much more efficient in a bath tub.
The Greeks, the Romans, the Turks, the Japanese all knew about the power of a tub of warm water. Ignorant as I am, they taught me that the bath ritual doesn’t require chanting, prayer, history or even soap. It only wants an abandonment to pleasure, of the cheapest and cheeriest kind.