“Front-sponge!” I chimed as soon as Mom announced it was bath time, sisterly code for claiming the front of the tub with coveted control of the faucet and possession of the large, soft sponge that delightfully oozed soap. Momentary sadness clouded my little sister’s brow because she hadn’t beat me to the punch. Then Abi’s cherubic face cleared and her blue eyes lit up as she piped, “Back-washcloth!” It didn’t matter she was claiming the leftovers, as long as she claimed them out loud.
Our childhood baths were communal affairs with bath games. We soaped each other’s backs and drew pictures or wrote messages with our forefingers in the suds, and the “backboard” tried to decipher the message. We giggled while we trapped air in the washcloth, carefully gathering the edges under water and then submerging it and squeezing so the air bubbles made farty sounds as they surfaced through the wet fabric. Our imaginations didn’t need tub toys; our fingers became characters traveling on the porcelain roads of the tub ledge, encountering adventures along the way.
“Time to wash your hair,” Mom said as she burst in and gathered towels and the large rinsing cup.
“No! No! It hurts!” Abi wailed as if her long blonde hair had nerve endings. I plugged my fingers in my ears and waited for the squalling to stop. Once we were snug and dry in fresh pajamas, we sat on Mom’s lap while she towel-dried our hair — and shrieked when she combed out the tangles. We finally sat quietly while she put our hair up in pink sponge rollers in the hope of perfect curls for Sunday morning church service.
After we moved to the big house on Washington Street and my little brother was born, three of us shared Saturday night bath time. Abi and I created a play pen for him between our legs so he wouldn’t slip down into the water. Robbie would laugh and slap his pudgy hands on the surface, waiting for our squeals as he splashed our faces.
One day, with no warning, I became aware of my nakedness. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, this consciousness was tinged with shame. My baths became solitary events behind locked doors, a wad of toilet paper stuffed in the keyhole to prevent any prying eyes. At first I was lonely and missed the camaraderie of my siblings. I washed dutifully and got out as quickly as possible. Gradually, the luxury of a whole bathtub to stretch out in dawned on me, and I lay back in the tub, meandering through daydreams, pondering
with leisure the subtle changes beginning to appear on my naked self.
Taking a bath was the only activity in our house that assured privacy. My bedroom had no locks and two doors, making it doubly vulnerable to invasion by parents or siblings. Through adolescence bathing was my inviolable private time. I developed a bathroom aesthetic and painted the walls of the “kids’ bathroom” a soothing pale grey to match the flecks in the linoleum. I begged mom for color coordinated towels to stack on the shelves over the toilet. There was a large window by the tub, and I turned out the lights and held the curtain back as I lolled in the water and gazed out at the sky.
Around the age of 16, claw foot tubs caught my romantic imagination. The charming oddity of these graceful relics being used as unappreciated water troughs in farmers’ fields endeared them to me. I longed to save them from extinction and return them to their former glory. I kept my eyes peeled for a likely candidate to adopt. I was pleasantly surprised when the first farmer I approached about rescuing a neglected tub half-hidden in the waving grass reacted with an amused crinkle around his eyes. “Sure, if you wanna go to the trouble of haulin’ that old thing outta here, it’s all yours,” he said.
My father borrowed a pick-up truck and a couple of strong high school classmates to deposit my treasure in our garage, where it sat until I was married. It left my hometown with me and resided in the second bedroom of our top floor lodgings in an old Portland bungalow. This was altogether superfluous, as the apartment had an even bigger claw foot in its cavernous bathroom, where I first got to discover for myself the comfort of bathing in such a brilliantly designed tub.
My unused claw foot moved on with us, residing in the yard or garage, wherever there was room. I turned a deaf ear to any complaints about the absurdity of hauling a six-foot-long cast-iron behemoth from house to house. My husband called a stop to what he considered lunacy when we moved from Oregon to California. He refused to transport that white albatross across state lines. I like to say this is one of the reasons I’m no longer married to that man.
Years later, when I was back in Portland, on the weekends when our daughters stayed with my soon-to-be ex, I sweated out my anger in a five-mile run and then came home and ran a bath. I loved the tiny bathroom in the roomy 1900-vintage fourplex where I moved during our divorce. It had nine-foot ceilings and a classic black and white tile floor. The tub was a wonder: it was square and doubled as a shower, with an oval bathing space that created two large corner ledges for candles, wine, books, chocolate — whatever I needed. It was here I welded bathing into sacred ritual. The forging of pain and tears with immersion in steaming water became my prayer. Sinking into the safety of
the warm, watery womb, I communed with my spirit. The goddess of bathing heard my prayer, and I emerged with the will to go on.
I lived in several more old houses over the next fifteen years, but none of them had a claw foot tub. It was always on the wish list but never fulfilled. By this time they were coming back into vogue and not so readily available from farmers’ fields. I was lucky enough to get my hands on another orphaned tub living in a client’s barn, and my second husband went along with my notion to bring it home to someday refinish and install in the bathroom. Instead it squatted for years, an immovable impediment, in our single-car garage.
After a five-week solo trip to New Zealand, where I indulged in several outdoor baths in claw foot tubs — almost a staple in New Zealand B&Bs— I returned anxious to throw my arms around my husband and promise I’d never leave on such a long trip again. When we arrived home from the airport, he proudly showed me the improvements he’d made in the master bedroom while I was gone, fulfilling everything on our current remodeling to-do list.
“You might want to take a look at the bathroom,” he said.
“Why?” I asked, opening the door. I froze in a twilight zone moment. My eyes could not translate what I saw to my brain. There sat a brand-new, gleaming claw foot tub with polished nickel feet and period faucets, sitting atop a gorgeous black and white marble floor. Candles were arranged on the wainscoting ledge, and a bouquet of roses sat next to a bottle of wine on the cabinet nearby.
I like to say this is one of the reasons I’m still married to that man.