by Sara Etgen-Baker
“Wash your hands, little lady!”
“I already washed them a little while ago. Why should I wash them again?”
“You’ve touched countless things since then; your hands are dirty.”
“But Grammy,” I turned my hands over, closely examining them. “They don’t look dirty!”
“Yes, they are! The kind of dirt I’m talking about is invisible; it rides on your hands and can make you sick. It can only be removed with soap and water. So go wash your hands!”
Invisible dirt riding on my hands? I hadn’t heard of such a thing and didn’t understand why I washed my hands more at Grammy’s house than I did at home. Maybe she has more invisible dirt at her house, I reasoned. Grammy had many other peculiar ways so I chalked up her handwashing practice as another one of them.
Before disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer were available, Grammy took sheets of paper towel and a small can of disinfecting spray with her, stuffing it inside her rather commodious purse. While out and about, she used her spray, liberally coating the surface of restaurant tables, public phones, restroom doorknobs, then vigorously rubbing the area until the coating disappeared. I never questioned her ritual but found it odd and even a little embarrassing.
Even my mother had her own baffling ways. She didn’t use her dishwasher because it cost too much to run. She never threw away any empty plastic butter tubs. Instead, she washed them and stored them in a cabinet for putting leftovers in. Eventually, the cabinet became so full that when the cabinet door was opened, the tubs tumbled out onto the floor.
Bar soap was cheaper than body wash or liquid hand soap and was, therefore, Mother’s preferred choice for washing one’s hands and body. Anyone who’s ever used bar soap knows that the bar gets smaller and smaller with each use. Eventually, all that remains is a balled-up, dirty, disfigured, and insignificant piece of soap that’s annoyingly impossible to use. Mother habitually gathered up all these mutant miniature soaps and placed them in—you guessed it—the empty butter tubs. Once she’d collected enough tiny soap pieces, she chopped them up; placed them in a Styrofoam cup; filled it with water; and cooked it in the microwave for 30 seconds. After drying for a few days, wah-la! A new bar of soap.
So what’s the point of rambling on about these women’s peculiar ways? Grammy was 18 when the 1918 flu pandemic began and lost a cousin to the virus making her highly sensitized to the presence of unseen germs. Mother grew up during the Great Depression and, out of necessity, learned to live prudently and waste nothing.
When the COVID19 pandemic struck, I suddenly had a new appreciation for what I thought were Grammy’s over-the-top sanitizing habits. When store shelves emptied in the wake of the pandemic, I found myself understanding Mother’s fear of not having and respected her frugality.
A teacher’s unexpected whisper, “You’ve got writing talent,” ignited Sara’s writing desire. Sara ignored that whisper and pursued a different career but eventually, she re-discovered her inner writer and began writing.
Her manuscripts have been published in anthologies and magazines including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Guideposts, Times They Were A Changing, and Wisdom Has a Voice.