Monday, July 19, 2010

Hands in the Bathroom

Hands in the Bathroom. Southeast corner with the cloudy window, within.

If I close my eyes to relive the most tender moment of my life, I sink back into the bathroom at that wartime house. My dad had been a farm boy, and my mom a city girl. Dad was worldly in his way and she in hers. Dad had been to Europe. There, he got a taste for better cheeses and better breads and for hot running water.

Our bathtub was a cast iron claw tub. Our toilet was much like the one I have today. The hot water tank was a tacky thing, tall and skinny by today’s standards. It was all lumpy with copper pipes and plates and covered with ragged ugly, possibly toxic insulation material that was haphazardly sheathed in a piece of flannel, full of rips. Between this monster and our toilet was a wall sink, hung at about the height of my clavicles. I could reach the taps; I was tall enough. But it was always best when Dad was there.

I don’t think I would ever have washed my hands except when having a romp in the bathtub or an accidental soaking while playing some kitchen chemistry game with whatever ingredients the cupboards offered. I don’t remember the common TV family commands Go wash up! or Brush your teeth! No, what I heard was my Nana telling my Mom to “Relax. We’re all gonna eat a peck of dirt before we die.” It never dawned on me to wash up before eating. It never did become a habit with me. Even if we were covered with some mysterious dark-coloured goo, or the dirt under our fingernails was brown, we were oblivious. We were hungry.

In the mornings, before school, or if I was a particularly terrible mess from a day of hard outdoor play, my dad would sweep me up and carry me to our heavy yellowish sink. I would stand on his feet and put the palms of my hands onto the cold porcelain of the sink bottom. He would put in the plug and turn on the cold, with a trickle, and then the hot. Then he would put his hands on top of mine and I would feel my left hand getting warmer and warmer. He’d turn off the cold tap, and my left hand would get warmer and warmer, almost hot, but never uncomfortable. He would whistle through his teeth during this little ritual, some Scottish tune like Road to The Isles, and the water would fill up the sink, past my wrists, and half-way up my arms. Then he’d pick up the soap and put it between my hands, and with my hands in his, he’d start to wash. The suds would spill through and I’d feel the slippery stuff in the middle and his big hands against mine. I could have stood like that for hours. Then, from nowhere, the corner of a towel would get dipped into the sink and his right hand would come against my face, with the warm, no, the hot wet cloth between. Just as my hands had felt comforted, this too was soothing and gentle.

Years later, my kids would hate getting their faces wiped. I guess I must have been rough. When I close my eyes today, I can still feel the bottom of my feet standing on my Dad’s feet, the strength of his legs keeping me tight against the sink. I had the faith that he would deliver hot steamy water, but not too hot. Just hot enough to bear. This was a supernatural connection I had with my Dad. He knew the power of the steam and taught it to me. I do not know where he learned it, but I’ve seen glimpses and heard snippets that the days of WWII did not only include battle but also private and sensual times in ancient architecture, including full bodied wines, and perhaps with women he knew before he met my mom. He never spoke about those times, but somehow I knew, especially from the European foods he enjoyed, that he had a hidden world that he shared in his own indirect ways. Maybe he was sharing a bit of that with me when he helped me enjoy the suds and the hot running water. To this day, I still love steam and despise the sauna.

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