“Bubbles, Bubbles, Toils and Troubles”
Eight of us lived in a house with one bathroom. Five of us had to be out of the house and on our way to work and/or school by 7:00 a.m. My mother was up at 4:30 a.m. making homemade bread for that night’s dinner.
My grandmother would take her place at the kitchen table to make pasta and then place the bread dough in the pans the minute mom walked out the door to catch the bus.
Dad was sleeping, having come home from the second shift at 12:30 a.m. and grandpa would be doing chores. My two cousins who lived with us were on their way to high school. My brother and I prepared ourselves for another day of school. That was a lot of folks moving around at that hour of the morning.
Water was a precious commodity in our house. I think my grandparents never really understood how the water came into the house via pipes and a sewer system. These were people who walked to wells and carried pails of water home, first and foremost, to ensure the livestock remained healthy. The rest of the water was used for cooking. If there was any left over, it was used for personal hygiene. You can imagine, water was scarce in a small village in Italy, especially during a war. Cleanliness was not top of mind.
We did chores on Saturday. And when I say we did chores, I mean my mother and I cleaned every inch of our house. I remember one of my least favorite tasks was hauling the Electrolux vacuum cleaner up the stairs and vacuuming the steps. That thing was really heavy. And that woman would put the Hubble telescope to shame. She could see a speck of dust from outer space. Those stairs were vacuumed at least 3 times before they passed inspection. After dinner, we took turns taking baths. It took eight people all of Saturday night for everyone to get a turn and use the bathtub. If you were unfortunate enough to be number 6, 7 or 8, you might as well have been bathing in the Artic ocean because by that time, the water was frigid.
Like the children of many immigrants, we considered our family habits normal. In fact, we thought they were pretty stellar. My mom, always a stickler for “trying to be better than everyone else” took great pride in dressing me in frilly girly dresses. And for Sunday mass, we were the best dressed family in the congregation. But pretty clothes do not overcome bad hygiene. And this falls into the category of “you don’t know what you don’t know’.
When I was in eighth grade, I asked my parents if I could invite some friends over for a birthday party. They weren’t quite sure what to make of this because we really didn’t celebrate birthdays. My parents would always buy us an ice cream cake from a local Italian bakery, but our birthday parties consisted of adult guests – aunts, uncles and godparents.
Unless they had children, your birthday party was an excuse for adults to get together for ice cream, espresso or coffee and /or their favorite adult American beverage – the high ball – made with gingerale and Four Roses whiskey.
After spending what I considered to be an eternity explaining to them what a birthday party was, they agreed, as long as I adhered to the following rules. I could have the party on a Sunday afternoon after church, there could be no more than 6 guests and we were relegated to the basement where we wouldn’t make a mess.
I was ecstatic. I planned the whole thing. I decorated the old kitchen table my grandmother used for canning tomatoes with a tablecloth. I bought paper plates and cups and napkins and Jordan almonds for party favors. I wore my favorite pinstriped sailor dress and for once – dear God – for once, my hair was not in braids. It hung loose on my back, two tiny barrettes holding my waving hair away from my face.
The guests arrived and each brought a present. We had cake, ice cream and gingerale. I opened the first present and was surprised to find it was a beautiful bottle of bubble bath! What a lovely gift! Carefully, I unwrapped the second gift. What a coincidence, another bottle of bubble bath!
The third box couldn’t be the same as the first because the size and shape were different, but when I opened it, inside a lovely pink box were 6 pastel colored bars of soap. Hmmm, I thought, this seems to odd that each gift is so much like the other.
Gift number four was a bottle of bubble bath and oddly enough, so were gifts five and six. I never gave it a second thought – never understood the “message” they were trying to send me. To me, it was soap and what was I going to do so much of that stuff?
After the guests left and my grandmother saw the presents, she too, was puzzled. In Italian she said to me, “Why would they bring you so much soap? That’s so wasteful. It will last the whole family the rest of our lives.” No one could figure out the why each guest had brought soap and after a while, I put it out of my mind.
Shortly after I started high school, I got the impression my friends took baths and showers every day. I started to do the same, because I wanted so much to be like them. My grandparents couldn’t understand it. What a waste of water – why would someone who sits in a desk in a clean school need to take a bath every day?
Then my brother started going to high school. Pretty soon, he was taking a bath or shower daily, too. What was going on? My parents asked me about it. “Well, I said, “it seems everyone in America takes either a bath or a shower every day – it’s what they do. And they wash their hair a lot, too. Not just once a month, but every other day at least.”
Both of them, each who worked in a dusty, dirty factory, were surprised but after a while, they followed the lead of their children and began bathing every day. It became a standard practice in our house. But I still hadn’t made the connection.
On occasion, I would wonder about that birthday and those gifts. I wondered why all those girls brought me soap. I’d shrug my shoulders, thinking, “I don’t get it. Must have been just such a coincidence.”
One day, decades later, I was driving home from work on the highway going about 70 mph in a 60 mph zone. Suddenly, for reasons I can’t explain, it came to me. Holy S***, the soap!!! They were telling me I needed to shower. Oh my God!!!
I slammed my foot on the brakes so hard, I lost control of the car. “They were trying to help me in the kindest way they knew how – but we, the immigrants – just didn’t get it.” I pulled over to the side of the road. “Oh my God,” I keep saying to myself, “Oh my God, how could I have been so stupid?”
By that time, I had been taking showers every day, washing my hair every day, and taking a warm bath at night just to relax in a bubble bath. I had become as persnickety about personal hygiene as just about anyone – almost obsessively so.
Was it because the lesson was before me for so long? Or was it something more pedestrian like seeing commercials for Dial and Palmolive and Dove that finally did it? My embarrassment and humiliation knew no limits. I was so angry at my family for being ignorant. For being immigrants with no education. For not even knowing the basics of how to take care of themselves. For having to be the grown up and teach them they needed to take baths.
I hated being from another country and really hated that we came from such a poor, stupid, stupid, stupid place where people were just…so stupid. I was born in the motherland of the Renaissance, the home of Dante, Michelangelo, DaVinci, the DeMedici’s. The land of fashion and design – Valentino and Ferrari, Pucci and Prada, and I had to come from the place that was the equivalent of Green Acres.
I was so angry, so embarrassed, I didn’t speak to my parents for a week and they had no idea why. I never told them. That would have embarrassed them and hurt their feelings. And when their feelings were hurt, somehow or another, it was my fault. And there was always a price to pay.
So, the lesson. I started to become very attuned to messages –I second guessed everything that happened. “Is this supposed to mean something? What am I missing?” I became so good at it, I thought I had developed a sixth sense.
So when That Man started having an affair, I knew something was wrong – I just attributed it to something else. I should have looked more closely. The soap was everywhere. And once again, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Everything reeked to seventh heaven, but this time, there was nothing I could do to stop the stench.