May. 2, 2019

SPLISH-SPLASH, I WAS TAKIN-A-BATH....ON ABOUT A SATURDAY NIGHT!

Growing up I never questioned why everyone bathed only once a week--on Saturday Nights.  I remember wanting to be first, before all the hot water ran out.  Heating water was a long process. It always took the one and only hot water heater several hours to heat enough water for the next bath.  After TV took control of our lives, we started our nighttime bathing earlier—usually Saturday afternoons—so we wouldn’t miss our favorite TV Shows.

As children...we just accepted "the way things were".  I don't remember ever asking WHY we all used the same soap and shampoo, and---on several occasions--the same towels.   Recently--just thinking about it-- I wonder why everyone bathed on Saturday Nights....rather than Monday Nights.

I’ve decided that, long ago, people didn’t bathe as often due to a shortage of money.  A hot-water heater cost money each time it heated the water.  Then, of course, there was a monthly water bill based on the amount of water used in a certain time period.   Imagine when there were no hot-water heaters or running water; when people had to carry water from a stream or Well... then heat the water on a wood stove.  Imagine the struggle to keep carrying the water…heating it on the stove….and filling a washtub or copper tub or whatever people sat in while bathing.

When we visited my grandparents in Missouri, bathing took on a new meaning.  It meant a washtub, a large kettle of hot water, a back porch, and no privacy.  A one-time experience was enough for me but…I believe everyone should know what “being-poor” meant back-then… as well as what it means to be poor, today.  

I was in the tenth grade when my father built us a lovely home in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.  That’s when I learned about FRUGALITY from our new next-door neighbor.  Although she limped badly from having Polio as a child and had only one breast because of cancer, the short and slightly stout woman was anything but a weakling.  She had blackboards hanging on the kitchen walls with a schedule for bathroom use, including bathing. Each member of the family checked the schedule to find their bathroom time, bathing time, even their meal time schedule.  One rule, written in chalk stated: If you aren’t seated at the table at your scheduled time, you won’t be allowed to eat until your next scheduled meal or the next day.

There was also a blackboard for chores and responsibilities. Find your name and you’d find your responsibilities. No one argued or complained.  There was a blackboard detailing specific punishments as well. What I found most fascinating about the neighbor’s military approach to schedules, rewards, and punishments, it seemed to work.

Like many housewives during the fifties and sixties, the neighbor smoked and…to save money…she bought loose tobacco and papers and rolled her own cigarettes. She had a little wooden contraption with a handle on the side.  As she turned the handle, a set amount of tobacco emptied onto one of the papers, and then a mechanism dropped down to seal the paper from end to end before pushing it onto a waiting tray.   I watched the housewife collect the cigarettes and store them in a metal tin.

When it came to bath time at her house, the Mistress of Frugality was prepared. She’d expertly marked all sides of the bathtub with a strong tape--like duct tape-- and everyone knew not to fill the tub beyond those marks! Also, each member of the family had one washcloth and one towel and it was their responsibility to keep both clean and ready for the next bath.

I thought the neighbor was a little “extreme” when I learned she rationed toilet paper and toilet flushings.   Her family members were punished if they didn’t leave the toilet clean for the next person and, it was just too bad if you forgot to take your toilet paper with you for bathroom time.  A family member was only allowed to use the toilet twice each day for a total of two flushes. The toilet paper was rationed at three squares per visit… meaning….each family member had a total of six toilet paper squares-- per day!

Now... I can’t end this story without telling you about the neighbor’s younger, unmarried sister, Stella Mae, who lived across the street. 

Stella Mae lived in a wheel chair because she, too, suffered Polio as a child but….she had a much-different lifestyle.  Somewhat attractive,  although considerably over-weight, this sister loved to wear bright-colored smocks, gypsy-like jewelry, nail polish, lots of makeup, and listen to big-band music.   And, every day of the week, the younger sister entertained men.  It was almost like a neighborhood soap opera…. just watching men of all shapes, ages, sizes, professions---in every kind of vehicle, visit the younger sister.   Apparently, Stella Mae had a blackboard too.  How else could she keep up with so many men, so many visitors, and so much daily activity? 

Those were the days when neighbors talked to their neighbors and, from time to time, shared little tidbits of information.  One neighbor said he’d heard the younger sister was a Fortune Teller with a real glass ball and could predict the future.  He hadn’t actually seen the Ball because her drapes were always closed on the windows facing his house.  But his wife, who worked at the town’s largest bank, said the younger sister made large cash deposits every week to both her checking and savings accounts. Fortune-telling must have really paid well in those days.

I’ve known some talented women during my lifetime. Some were highly-creative, even while sitting in a chair.

Sally Miller