September 2014 — BROWN SOAP

In 1941, my mother had a machine to wash the clothes. Before I went to Primary School, when I was a small person of about six years, I remember how both impressed and wary I was when the machine was in operation. Since it was too tall for me to peer into its mysterious insides, I could only imagine the helpless clothes in the soapy water. It was blue with gleaming silver stripes on the outside and (I was told) pure white porcelain on the inside.

The washer was barrel-shaped and squat. It stood on four wide legs made of flat metal that curled around at the bottom for feet. It lived in the laundry room. When it was washing clothes, the hard rhythmic sloshing back and forth made a commotion and it moved slightly across the linoleum floor. It seemed to me there was some essence of life inside; this added to its mystery.

My Mother hated it. I knew she did by the way she looked at it, but she never said so. I didn’t know, then, why she felt that way, but I could imagine she was wishing it would go stumping out the door, down the road, and gone. The dog did, too. She drooped her tail and left the room quickly when it was working. I would peek into the room from the doorway. Mother always rejected my help. She said I would get wet, or the hot water was dangerous, or the soap would be too rough for my skin.

On laundry day, always Monday for some reason, my Mother would get out the dirty clothes and the box of pebbly white detergent and a cake of brown soap. Then she would fill the washer with hot water and add some boiling water from her kettle. I could see the steam rise and Mother would say, “There, now it’s really hot.” She’d wet the stains and dirt on the clothes and rub them with brown soap before plunging them into the swirling white bubbles in the machine.

After the clothes were washed and had been rinsed until the water was clear, my Mother would start the mangle, which was attached to the top of the washer. It was simply a pair of rollers set closely together that squished out the water when you fed the clothes between them. But it was as scary as the washer, since you could get your hand caught in the rollers and painfully squeezed (at least, that’s what Mother said to warn me off). The dog and I left that scene rather quickly.

She would put the flatly mangled clothes in an oblong wicker basket and carry it balanced on her shoulder to the back porch door. We had a clothesline, a double rope that stretched from the house to a tree next to the garage. It was wound over a pulley at each end, so it was in two layers. Mother would stand and clip a sock to the line with a wooden clothespin, push the line away from her a bit and add the next sock, until the whole line was filled. Sometimes if she had a lot of clothes, she’d put the small ones on the top part of the line and then walk out along it, into the yard, clipping the sheets and towels to the bottom line as she went.

If it was cold, my mother’s hands would be red when she came in. If it was windy, the clothes flapped on the line, making sharp slapping noises. When it was freezing outside, they froze; sometimes into stiff, contorted shapes. Washing was a chore, not fun. I checked every so often from the back porch or a window to see if she was finished. When she was, she would come inside and, if it was winter, rub cream on her red and roughened hands and stand by the stove for a few minutes to get warm. Then she would lie down and put a cold, damp washcloth on her forehead to get rid of what she called her “wash-day headache,” and take a nap.

I would sit in the parlor and try not to disturb her. The dog would sleep next to me on the couch. The house was very quiet, with only the fire in the fireplace softly crackling. I was warm in my sweater and my little girls’ denim overalls, working on a jig-saw puzzle.

Later on, revived, Mother would get up and cook. She spent time in the kitchen making tasty stews from vegetables she had preserved from our Victory garden and scraps of meat. Wartime rationing was in force, you were limited in the amount of meat you could buy; it was for the soldiers. Everyone had a Victory garden, it was supposed to help with the War.

Mother would sometimes hum off-key when she cooked. Cooking was Mother’s solitary pleasure. I could sometimes help by fetching new-laid eggs from the hen house or helping to stir the batter, but she really liked to do it all herself. She was happy when she was warm and making a lemon meringue pie or a chocolate cake with cherries from the sweet cherry tree in the yard—our favorites. When her lemon pie was cut and a piece lifted onto a plate, the end of the piece would fall gently over—the mark of a perfectly textured filling, she said. The dog waited for scraps, sitting quietly at attention, her tail moving ever so slightly; smiling as dogs do, in anticipation.

All these years later, remembering the scenes as I look at pictures in an old album, I try to imagine her thoughts. Mother had been an RN before she married. Her uniform was formal and perfect: she wore a little cap on the back of her head folded crisply into a crown. It set off her thick and curly black hair, which was cut a medium length. Everything she wore—cap, shoes, and dress were entirely white. Her dress had a wide, heavily starched pinafore on top, a stiff collar, and deep cuffs on her long sleeves. She looked like a model 1920s head nurse. She clearly did not empty bedpans.

She used to say to me, “I could have been a doctor. When I did my post-graduate work in Manhattan I had many classes with the residents. I could take out a tonsil today, I’m sure, just like that,” and she’d snap her fingers. “But women didn’t often study medicine in those days. You can, however, and I think you should plan to be a doctor—you’re good in Science.”

At the peak of her career, before she married, she was the Head Nurse of the Ninth floor at the Manhattan Eye and Ear Infirmary and you could see she was in command. She used to say, “When you are in charge, and you are responsible for the lives of your patients, you must insist that everyone who works under you feels responsible for them, as well.”

The sepia-toned pictures show her, lovely but wistful, with a somewhat uneasy smile—a hint of what was to come, perhaps? “The Ninth was the private floor,” she would say, “the patients gave me gold pieces for tips in 1928. I wish I had kept the gold, but I went right out and spent it.”

She made it sound funny, but I was puzzled by the joke. When she was a nurse, the laundry was done for her, not by her. Once she married, in 1929, she was no longer a nurse, but a wife, and then in 1934, a mother. Her life changed from one of ease to one of worry as the economy changed in a year from the Great Boom into the Great Depression. Everyone saved wherever they could. She baked, sewed, cleaned, took care of everything in the house and the yard, but she didn’t work as a nurse again until twenty years later.

And so today I think of brown soap and I picture my mother scrubbing heavy work clothes and dirty socks as a reminder of the difficulties of the era when I was growing up. Brown soap means, to me, don’t count on your way of life, always be ready to do whatever you need to if you have to—nobody is too important to wash clothes or bake bread or save money when money is hard to earn.

I value brown soap and use it as a pre-wash for stains and, while I don’t bake bread, I know I can Brown Soap is useful, too, as a preventive scrub after someone gets into poison ivy.

But that’s another story.


By Mary Wallis Gutmann copyright © 2014