There were simple rules at my Grandparents’ house, rules you knew you must abide while visiting. I don’t remember learning most of these guidelines, what I remember is knowing these rules existed and I should do my best to comply. We visited my Grandparents every Sunday after church. The church my parents had been married in, the church both their families had helped to found. I would sit in the pew next to my mother, swinging my feet and kicking the pew in front of me. I sang along to the hymns and made up words of my own. I would count the windows or the number of ceiling tiles it took to cover the whole church. I didn’t do much listening in church, but I remember going to Grandma’s house after for tea and cinnamon raisin toast.
Most times when we arrived home from church, Grandpa would be out back in his garden. When my mother and Grandma needed to chat without my little ears in the vicinity, I would be ushered directly to the back yard. Rushing past my Grandpa’s pickup and around the corner of the house, down the path, past the day lilies and into the most magical garden. My grandpa bent over his tomatoes, tying them to stakes, would stand and wipe his brow with the handkerchief that was always sticking out of his pocket. Such fun we had digging in the dirt, picking veggies and pulling weeds and throwing them in the hole. Sometimes I’d wander off task to chase a butterfly or climb the tree. What a rag a muffin I was, that is what my mother always said.
I knew it was safe to go back into the house when my Grandma lifted the kitchen window to tell me to pick some mint for our cup of tea. Gleefully I would run to the edge of the garden, next to the old chain link fence, passed the forsythia where the mint ran wild. “Pick as much as you’d like!” my grandpa would tell me. ”The weed is taking over the yard!” It always made me giggle. Running back into the house with my fist full of mint, I’d climb the back stairs to the kitchen and hand the mint to Grandma. Next I was off to the bathroom to wash my hands, no tea and toast without clean hands. Here in the bathroom, on the second floor, you’d find the great ball of soap.
Part of the reason I never argued over washing hands at my grandparents’ house was this great ball of soap. It was huge in my little hands and it was many different colors. When you got it wet, so many different fragrances rose from the suds. I would spin it in my hands, rolling it over and over creating fabulous bubbles. Sometimes that great ball would slip out of my hands and thunk in the bottom of the sink, splashing soapy water all over, making me giggle. Eventually my mother would climb the stairs looking for me, trying to stop me before the mess had gotten too big. I’d start frantically wiping up the sink as soon as I heard her footsteps approaching. No one needs to get upset over a little soapy water and I certainly didn’t want to jeopardize my mint tea and toast at the big person table.
If I was lucky and my mess had been minimal, no tea or toast was spared. We would return to the kitchen where my Grandma would be sitting with her cup of tea. The little step stool would be dragged from the corner next to the fridge over to the kitchen table so I could join the ladies. My cup of tea, half filled would be poured and I got the pleasure of dropping in the mint leaves. Grandma would put the bread in the toaster and my mother would butter my toast. Gleefully I’d gobble up that toast and slurp my tea with reckless abandon. Over the years, my manners did improve, but my seat was always that little stool in the corner.
On the way home, my mother once asked me why I liked to wash my hands so much at my grandparents’ house. The great ball of soap is really the only thing I could come up with. Why couldn’t we have a great ball of soap? My mother never really answered that question, not to my memory. Years later when I was older, my mom finally explained. My Grandpa had been raised during the Great Depression, when every little thing had value, things we just threw away. Things like the last little sliver of soap, that tiny, slippery piece we drop in the shower and later grab with a tissue and discard. My Grandpa’s soap was every last little sliver they ever had, all balled up into one beautiful orb of suds.
It’s kinds beautiful, isn’t it?