Magic Clawfoot Blues: Kids, Bubble Baths, and GhostsSerge Bielanko
This morning I gave my three-year-old daughter a bath, same as it ever was.
She knows the drill.
Most of the time she is excited to get down in the water, to lay on her belly and splash around. And lately, we discovered that big pink jug of bubble bath you can get at Wal-Mart for like two dollars, so nowadays, as the warm water is gushing out of the metal faucet, I unscrew the cap as Violet bounces up and down, a bundle of jitters giddy at the simple prospect of pouring out the bubble sauce herself.
Then, I hoist my little girl up over the side of the clawfoot tub: a heavy sullen battleship that sits parked in the spot in this Museum of Victorian Hardship where we hang our hats (on old coffin nails driven deep into the plaster and lathe). Yeah, I know … in the world of Mommy/Daddy Blogging, where you can take a photo of a lump of dog puke down on the floorboards in certain lamplight and mess with it a little in photoshop or whatever and have it come out looking like a damn Martha Stewart caramel-gilded Heritage Apple with it’s own paper pedigree and all that: it would seem, at first glance, to be a hip tub.
But it took me a while to get there.
See, this ain’t your Gwyneth Paltrow-ish clawfoot, updated with the tasteful modern touches that make life utterly delightful. This is a back alley two-ton porcelain dumpster from the Civil War; back when sooty sweaty hard-working people climbed in to a scalding bath of coal-cooked river water once every fortnite or so, depending on if there was any water available or if they were using the entire tub to store chestnuts for the approaching brutal winter.
In those days, Pappy didn’t climb out of the thing until the water had turned the color of old borscht and his pickled skin was so supple and wrinkled you could pull it off his bones like a soup hen.
Anyway, the tub is old.
It’s old and there is a faint hazy halo of gold around its inner shell.
But the other day, as I was alternating between scrubbing some maple syrup out of Violet’s curls and hurling my stink-eye at the ancient tub, I was suddenly struck by a weirdo notion, but a nice one too.
There is history there, it occurred to me, there is pure history in that old American grime.
Think about it, I persuaded myself.
The faint essence of old dirt farmers and railroad men and meat hunters all rubbed and scrubbed hard into the tub’s stained walls.
Hmph, I thought. I guess with some imagination there is even a certain charmant qualité (I made this word up!) in welcoming our rich and storied heritage to bathe with our young, huh?
And then, oh boy: what a strange and freaky sensation.
There you are, you know, and you lower your toddler girl down in that water and turn your back for a couple secs to grab a pair of her socks out of the dresser in the other room, and when you come back into the bathroom, your angel is on her back, eyes closed, a Santa beard of bubble bath all over her chin, and suddenly you realize that, in a weird way, sticking your kid in this old clawfoot tub is kind of freaking you out.
Because, she ain’t in there alone. And suddenly you know it, man. You feel it. Like a light hand on the back of your neck. Someone unseen guiding you, gently.
Because the truth is this. In the morning, when I lower all 33 pounds of little girl down into that morning bath, she is slipping under those bubbles down there not with a mess of characters that are not plastic and do not look like a rubber orange crab. These are lumberjacks sitting in that bath water! And hobos and deer hunters and railroad men and soda jerks and horseshoe makers and coal miners and gunfighters and fur traders and President Abraham Lincoln and Babe Ruth and Amelia Earhart and Frederick Douglass and Sitting Bull and probably other kids her age, from way before anyone ever dreamed of even the idea of these two birds named Violet and Henry.
These two kids that look just like mine, splashing around in this big clumsy tank of hot water, and sharing a bath with all the wonderfully greasy folks who, once upon a time, sighed low into the burst of golden evening streaking through a pane of glass, as they leaned back into the steaming bubbles and suds of a world that had never even heard of us.