It was a terrible story.
It was two days into the new year, and my husband B and I were enjoying a low-key, post-holiday meal with a small group of family and friends. Mack, a dear friend, sat across from us. Mack’s Irish, Catholic, born and raised in Hudson County, and therefore can always be relied upon for a whacky tale. However, he shared a disturbing story from his childhood that made me respect his strength in overcoming adversity.
Mack told about the time his parents asked how his day at school had been. Mack was a second-grader at Saint Holy at the time.
“It was lousy.”
Mack’s parents froze and stared at him. His father looked on the verge of erupting.
“What did you say, young man?”
Mack thought fast, but there wasn’t much to think about. His parents had clearly heard him; there was no taking back those three words, especially the most offensive: lousy. The punishment: Mack had his mouth washed with soap. The grown-up Mack at the dinner table laughed at the memory.
“Can you imagine? Lousy!”
Everyone at the table burst into laughter, and claimed how times have changed since back-in-the- day.
I was intrigued. I’d never known that having one’s mouth washed with soap was a real punishment. Back in my day—the ‘70s in Queens—punishment in my Puerto Rican household was my mother taking off her chancleta and waving it menacingly in my direction. If my offense was really terrible, she gave me the eyebrow: her two brows formed one solid black line of concentrated rage that could incinerate me if I didn’t hustle my little culo out of her range.
I’d always thought the soap-in-the-mouth thing was make-believe and only existed in the world of the Little Rascals. Having a solid cleaning agent inserted into one’s potty mouth was of an alien universe devoid of stinging chancletas. Yet there was Mack, a survivor. Being nosy and a writer, I had questions.
“Was there a bar of soap specially designated for mouth washing?”
Everyone turned and looked at me like I’d sprouted a head out of my nostril.
“I mean, was there a specific bar of soap that was used only for washing out potty mouth, Mack?”
“Oh! No, it was whatever bar was lying around, the one in the bathroom or wherever.”
“There was only one bar of soap?”
It was Pal’s turn to laugh and answer.
“Nancy! It was Hudson County in the ’50s. You got a bar of soap…”
“Probably Irish Spring…” interjected Joy.
“If you were fancy! The supermarket sold one kind of soap, maybe two, your mother bought one, and that’s what you had in the house. That’s it.”
One bar of soap? From the bathroom? I thought of the Yardley cucumber-scented complexion bar in the shower of my and B‘s bathroom. The bar not to be touched by B, just as I would never touch his bottle of shea-butter-and-oatmeal body wash. Bathroom space may be shared; cleansers, never.
A mental image of life in Mack’s childhood home emerged, and I realized that it likely represented households around Hudson County, possibly the nation, at the time. Households with one communal bar of soap, kept in the bathroom, used to cleanse hands at the sink, feet and armpits in the shower, afloat in tubs amid a sludge of dead skin cells, embedded with body hair of various length, texture, and origin. And those trappers of contagion, germs, grime, dirt and sand from feet soles, hairs from all areas of the body, were inserted into the mouths of children for perceived offenses, something as minor as saying “lousy.”
I would have begged for the sting of la chancleta or lived under the glower of the eyebrow rather than have a bar of soap inserted into my mouth. I would have spent my childhood mute, and been placed into special ed because I would have been designated as developmentally challenged (“retarded” in those pre-PC ’70s days in working-class Queens).
I didn’t point out to anyone at the table that this was pre-antibacterial soap, before the germ-killing craze had overtaken America. B calls me a germophobe, but what does he know? He revealed at the table that he’d had his mouth washed out with soap as a child, too. He’d never shared that with me. Considering the trauma, I could not fault him, but I would make certain he rinsed with antibacterial mouth wash before his lips made contact with mine.
I looked at those gathered at the table, laughing at Mack’s story and likely at my horror about something that was such a mundane detail of their childhood. I gained a new respect for them, all victims who now had the strength, decades later, to laugh about such life-threatening actions. And I was thankful for how far we’ve come in our households of specially designated, antibacterial super-powered cleaning agents.