Do I Have To Take A Bath?
I gave M her very first bath. In the hospital. Before a group of new moms. The nurse was going to give us a lesson on bathing newborns. She needed two volunteers. Mother and baby. I volunteered myself and M. Because unlike the other new moms, I was going to be on my own when I got home. No mother or mother-in-law waiting to show me the ropes.
A table stood in the center of the room. On it was a baby bath tub. Half-filled with warm water. The lesson began. Pick up little naked M. Hold her over the tub with your left hand. Wash her head with your right hand. Use a tiny bit of soap. No water on her face. Use a washcloth on her body. Make sure you clean her bottom. Do not take too long. Dry her gently.
My hands were very stable. Looked like bathing newborns was my hobby. And M. She just looked straight into my face. Not a whimper. Looked like she had baths in the womb.
Taking a bath was a ritual for M and me. In the beginning, in the small apartment in Chiba, I would clear the diningtable to give M a bath. In a few months, she became too long for the table. I rented a bath chair, and gave M showers.
In Lagos, the showers continued. It was too hot for a Japanese bath. Besides, when the tub was filled with water, the water was always brown. It was easier on the mind to take showers.
New York City was great for baths. Manhattan apartments were well-heated, and we had long leisurely baths in the winter. M’s kindergarten teacher, Ms. Whitelaw, shared a little secret with her. Bubble baths. With scented candles. And chocolate truffles. We led such decadent lives. In the bathroom.
Back to Tokyo. Back to the real world. The very real world of government employee housing. A small apartment in a forty-year-old building. With concrete walls covered with thin wood panels that came off regularly. I simply glued them back on. But it was good to be back in Japan. To enjoy a Japanese bath. To be able to sit in a tub that had hot water coming up to your shoulders.
And M and I crowded into the tub in the winter, and just sat there talking. About feeding Patchy, the class pet, a guinea pig. She loved green lettuce. About the fuzzygrams. Those little cheery notes that Ms. Crane’s students sent to each other. About her Halloween costume. She was Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree.
We planned her Halloween costume in the bath. M in cardboard paper painted brown.
Carrying an umbrella covered with green crepe paper leaves that had small plastic apples hanging from the edges. And just to make sure everyone knew what she was, we made a sign that said, “The Giving Tree,” and stuck it to the trunk.
M’s costume was a hit, specially with the little kids. They kept trying to pick the apples.
I could not sew for the life of me. And mothers who cannot sew have to be creative, and learn to use a stapler as a sewing machine.
Bath time was fun time. Until that one very cold winter day.
M: Do I have to take a bath?
Mommy: Because you need to be clean.
M: But I am not dirty.
Mommy: You don’t want to smell.
M: I am not smelly.
M gives me a hug. And she is right. She is not smelly.
Mommy: Well, we talk when we take a bath.
M: We talk all the time.
And she is right again. We talk in the car, on the way to and from school. We talk when she has her snack after school. We talk during dinner. We talk before falling asleep. We talk all the time.
I decided to start asking the questions.
Mommy: Why don’t you want to take a bath?
M: Because I am not dirty.
M: Because I am not smelly.
M: Because I don’t want to stop playing pretend.
Mommy: But you can still play pretend after taking a bath.
M: But I want more time to play pretend.
It was getting late. The six o’clock news had started. The onions were waiting to be chopped…the carrots peeled…pork stew for dinner. I wanted to scream.
“Just get undressed!”
But with a calmness that I did not think I was capable of, I said,
“OK. You do not have to take a bath today.”
M: MOMMY, I LOVE YOU!
M went without a bath that night. But she did wash her face, and brush her teeth before bed. I sighed with relief. She was not a slob.
The next day.
Mommy: Time for bath, M.
M: I am not dirty.
M: My hands are clean. See.
All I could see was the long struggle ahead of me.
Two days without a bath. It is not going to kill her. I console myself.
The third day.
Mommy: M, sweetie, would you like to take a bath today?
M: No. I did not go out to play today. I am not dirty.
M was scratching her head.
Three nights without a bath.
I was having great difficulty with my temper.
The fourth day. M was scratching her head. A lot. She was also itching. A lot.
Mommy: You have to stop scratching, M.
M: But I am itchy.
Mommy: I wonder why. There are no mosquitoes in the winter.
M wanted to play pretend, her favorite game, but she was too itchy.
M: Mommy, I am so itchy.
Mommy: Well, you have not taken a bath for three days. But I don’t think you’re dirty.
M: But my head is so itchy.
Mommy: Your hair has been unwashed for three days. But I don’t think you’re dirty.
M was a perceptive child. She knew exactly what I was doing.
M: I want to take a bath.
Mommy: But you’re not dirty.
M: I really want to take a bath.
Mommy: Are you sure?
M: Can I please take a bath?
Mommy: Well, if you so insist…
We still take baths together. And I thank my lucky stars that she never asked,
Do I have to brush my teeth?