Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Mother (as in maternal parent) (04/24/08)
By Ann Grover
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Hot water cascaded into the washtub in a flurry of steam. The kitchen window was hazed over, a foggy curtain holding out the night.
Mother filled the pail from the barrel in the corner and lifted it onto the woodstove again. Droplets sputtered and sizzled.
Rachel slipped off her dress and held onto the rim as she slid into the tin tub. Already, the baby had splashed in the milky water, followed by Sarah, Rebecca, and Gracie. I jostled the squirming infant, who was vexed by the proceedings and restless for bed.
Water streamed into Rachel’s eyes as Mother lathered and rinsed her hair. Deftly, Mother frothed a cloth with a bar of soap and quickly scrubbed Rachel. A few dippersful of fresh water from a nearby pail and Rachel was done.
“Hand the baby to Rebecca, Leah.” It was my turn, but I could bathe myself. Mother poured in another half pail of hot water.
I added my clothing to the growing heap on the floor. Pinafores, dresses, unmentionables. Quickly, before the water cooled, I bathed.
“Let me check.” Mother made sure no suds remained in my hair and handed me a towel. Chilled, I drew my nightgown over my head.
I watched Mother’s fingers fly, rolling Sarah’s wet hair around strips of old sheeting, to be transformed by morning into glossy fat ringlets. The baby was whining in Rebecca’s arms, but he would have to endure a little longer while I braided Rebecca’s hair and Mother finished the other girls’ hair. My own fingers were awkward and slow. Poor, patient Rebecca.
Finally, the girls were done, and it was time for the boys. Mother poured more water into the tub in another surge of steam. Little Samuel and Luke were laughing, slippery trout, submerged beneath the foam, cresting waves over the edge of the tub to puddle on the wood floor. I dried their wriggling, plump bodies; they were evasive as eels, sturdy as calves.
Then, Mother had her bath.
We were swept from the damp and misty kitchen, and I wondered who checked Mother’s hair for wayward lather. By the time she came out of the kitchen, shiny-cheeked, her sleek hair was twisted into a neat roll again. The baby was whimpering and limp in Rebecca’s arms, eager to nestle with Mother, fragrant with rose water and warm.
We gathered around, the kerosene lamp spreading a golden glow on each face, and Mother sang, softly, quietly. The slippery fish sprawled, now drowsy puppies, and the girls in their nightgowns were like white doves, eyes glistening. A few voices joined in, some clearly, some murmuring, and I fumbled with the words, trying to add my faltering alto.
Eyes began to close. Soon, the only sound was the baby’s swallowing, contented. Mother rose, stepped over the little boys and carried the baby to his cradle. I saw her lay a hand on his head.
Mother roused the sleepy girls, and their nightgowns fluttered, twirling in the gentle light. The boys were flushed, and Mother put Luke over her shoulder, while I carried Samuel. I was intoxicated by his sweet breath whispering against my cheek. We put them in their bed, and they burrowed beneath the quilt, their fingers clasped together in dreaming games, tousled curls tossed in imaginary breezes.
Rachel and Rebecca pleaded for another song, and Mother obliged them while she caressed their foreheads, and I was amazed because I knew there was the mountain of laundry in the kitchen and the tub of tepid water to be hurled away. Yet, I’d thought of my own schemes for after the last child was tucked in, a book to read together, another song. How small my own consideration could be. I saw Mother’s lips move. The girls’ eyes closed, even before the lamp was extinguished.
I helped Mother pick up the dresses and unmentionables, towels and trousers. We baled the murky water from the tin tub and wiped the tub dry. A few tendrils worked themselves loose from Mother’s neat hair bun and fell into her eyes, and she pushed them back, and for a moment she looked young, like Rebecca.
“Tea, Leah?” Mother pulled the kettle forward on the woodstove and within minutes, the water was bubbling.
“You’re a good little mother, Leah. Thank you.” We sat together in the warm kitchen, still redolent with the scents of young bodies, soap, and wet towels.
The house sighed.
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