Published on June 25th, 2021 | by Jade Sanchez-Ventura and Ro Agents-Juska1
Bath: HOME IS WHERE WE
Today is the nine-year anniversary of my grandmother’s death. She has not seen, at least in corporeal form, the end of my eating disorders, the birth of my first child, the presidency of the 45th, the birth of my second child, the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, the mass protests, my pink hair. She’s gone and I am here now with two children in a city that one year ago was a COVID epicenter. I am here now with a home to clean, rules to create and adhere to, money to balance. I am here now, grown, in my apartment and sitting on the toilet with the door locked, the only door I lock with no explanation or checking with anyone first. I pee. I keep sitting there with clothes around my ankles, holding aside the curtain to look out over the gardens and the magnolia my mother-in-law planted forty years ago. It’s now as tall as the house and a great joy of every April. I look at the blossoms, trying not to be sad in advance that I didn’t spend sufficient time looking. The backyard cats balance on the wooden fence and sometimes pounce. I flip the pages of Vogue. I look at, feel flummoxed by, the two floor tiles that are loose again. At the dust that girds the molding. And most especially at the smudges of past baths left like tidelines on the enamel of the tub. When I was four years old, my mother and I lived for a year with my grandmother in her East Village studio apartment. My parents had divorced. My mother was starting grad school. It was my grandmother who picked me up, bathed me, fed me, put me to bed. I loved all about this except for the clean-the-bathtub rule. My grandmother’s policy was to clean it immediately after one bathed. I’d emerge feeling soft and fresh after my day of city schoolyard play, delighting in the feel of the towel as she dried me. But then, she’d tuck the towel into place under my armpits and take me through the steps. Squirt soft soap on the sponge kept for this purpose in the plastic container beside the tub. Wipe away the water line. Fill the metal bowl with water. Wash away the soap. Just a few minutes, she’d say, and then done! The tub fresh and clean for the next person. But I supremely did not like it. It negated the whole purpose of the bath. I traded my good, soapy, rinsed, clean warmth with the tub’s dirt while I knelt there on the mat, getting chilly. I felt like I needed another bath when I was done. But then I mused (in my four-year-old way), I’d have to wash out the tub again, and then take another bath, and on and on until infinity. Me and Sisyphus, doing our thing.
To be fair, my grandmother made herself do this too. Which was even more mystifying. She was a grown up. She didn’t have to clean the tub, no one could make her, so why in the world would she do this instead of taking her toweled self to the couch and then adding a blanket and sitting there for a while feeling good? I could not fathom taking on this task of one’s free will.
“Careful,” my mother said the other week, “the women in our family go a little crazy at forty.”
“What?” I said, “I thought it was thirty.”
And I did think it was thirty and I’d thought I’d taken care of that with my late-twenties anorexia and exercise bulimia. Now, I’m 39.
When I do my own bathtub, I intend to finish it with lemon oil on a soft rag wiped over the whole thing. I have the lemon oil and the rag sitting in a plastic container kept under the sink for this purpose.
According to my grandmother’s philosophy, for me to meticulously scrub my tub after every bath would be an act of love for my family and myself. She was the same about table manners. She told me that our most proper manners were not to be reserved for fancy restaurants or “tea with the queen.” They were for our family. We daily showed them our esteem by presenting them with our most well-honed etiquette.
My mother did not abide by these rules. She inherited the spirit of them in her setting of a table and her welcome of all to those tables, but she won’t follow her mother’s strictures. My grandmother got me though. I’m willing to put a jar of condiment directly on the table, but I don’t like it. That sour cream should be in a small bowl, the bowl on a plate, a spoon on the plate next to the bowl. Since I’ve been the birther of our children, my partner has taken on the lion’s share of dishes and sometimes he begs me not to go there.
“So many spoons!” he cries out.
But then, neither my grandmother nor my mother left me lessons in how to share a table and its customs with a man.
Great-grandmother. Grandmother. Mother. Me.
I don’t know what happened to my great-grandmother at forty. She’d been raising her two daughters alone in her father’s home since the girls were little and the farm was lost to the bank. Her husband got what was considered a good job in that Depression-era, but it kept him away from home all year. He got two weeks at Christmas–the other fifty he spent following the harvest across North, Central and South America, designing and fixing John Deere tractors and combines and other machines I don’t know the names of. Family lore tells that they loved each other. Did she tire of the nights alone in her room in her father’s home? I remember that room. As a small child, I’d sleep next to her tall bed in a squeaky trundle made of wood and metal. The house light cast leaf shadows on the ceiling. I don’t know what form her crazy took.
Crazy for my grandmother at forty meant sitting up all night smoking cigarettes at the Formica table while her children, aged five and one, slept. Her husband, who drank, was sometimes home and sometime not. She asked herself if this feeling was insanity. She kept asking until she read Betty Friedan. Soon after she returned to a job in newspapers and though she was then insanely busy with the work of the home and the work outside it, she no longer felt herself to be, in fact, insane.
My mother’s version of crazy I knew well. When she was forty, I was seventeen and a senior in high school and we lived together in a one bedroom apartment. She stopped sleeping. Started having panic attacks. She did not know why. My grandmother moved in with us to help, sleeping on the futon couch in the living room that was also my mother’s bedroom. My mother thought perhaps it was the immensity of the transition; that I, her only daughter, whom she had parented since she was 23 would soon be moving out. By the spring, with the help of behavioral therapy, her symptoms eased and she felt grounded and steady as she guided me through graduation and into college.
I am at the edge of forty. I am ten years into marriage, six years into parenting, a year and half into parenting two kids. I am ready to stop fearing what domestic life may cost me.
At first, COVID took much of what I love out of the life of the home. In the beginning, it cut off access to our multi-generational family life, our community, our friends with kids, public spaces, and fresh air. It left me, the one on parental leave with our second kid, alone to manage the tactical and emotional rhythms of our days while my second was barely out of the newborn stage. And then of course, there was the fear.
My grandmother and grandfather finalized a divorce when she was in her early fifties. I don’t believe she ever dated again. It was a trade: the pleasures of romance and sex in exchange for autonomy. (It’s been a woman’s bargain for millennia: One perk of being a nun is that God may be in charge but he’s kind of far away.) “I could never compromise myself for a man again,” she told me. She could have desire, or she could be in charge of her own days. She could not have both.
As a child, I sensed what she’d given up to create her own domain. Yes, there was so much she did give herself…the playing of a jazz record in the lamp light; the smudge of newspaper on her fingertips; the careful crawl stroke slicing through salt water and lake water and pools; us—my mother and me, my uncle and cousins; books; ideas; the framed art on her walls; walks by the river; beautiful meals in beautiful places; frugal care for her possessions; her pigskin gloves wrapped in white tissue paper and kept in a box in her top drawer where she also keeps the torn perfume pages from magazines to scent all within; she takes the gloves out for a special night, often she matches them with the deep midnight blue winter coat that has the swing of a cape and a hidden button at the neck…but the denial was there too and it scared me.
I’ve taken to wearing the gloves. Recently, I slide them on when I smoke my occasional COVID-era cigarettes that make me feel, briefly, autonomous in the world. They keep the smell off my skin. The leather is supple and moves with mine.
I gave myself my first orgasm in a bathtub. I was about seven. I knew sex according to its definition, but not the words “masturbation” or “orgasm.” And yet, already, the games I played were threaded through with shame and punishment, already some part of girl-me had learned the equations, had come to understand that my pleasures, my delight in my own skin, came with costs and trades. I could not get, without giving, even in the worlds of my own design.
I cannot let go of my sadness over what my grandmother traded. I tell myself that I cannot know the intricate play of desire and satisfaction for her, in her body and mind. I saw that there was true pleasure borne of the homes she created, a love affair with beauty really. But I also saw the weight she would not allow to accumulate on her bones. I saw her clean the tub while getting chilly and wrapped in a towel and those moments did not feel like love or beauty or care for self.
My grandmother did not make me clean the bathtub when I did not officially live with her. No matter, if it was a month that I was in her home, I was a guest and guests were not asked to do such things. I put away the dishes every night. I made the beds, I oiled the wood furniture with oil rags, I set and cleared the tables, I swept, I helped her grocery shop, I polished the silver before the holiday meals, but the real down and dirty work of the home, she not only did not ask me to do, she did out of my sight. When then, did she wash the ever-spotless toilet and tub? I do not know. Perhaps in the dawn hours when she woke up and I still slept.
And also there is this: Me stirring on my fold-away in the still dark morning to see her sitting at the black table with her journal, a pen, a candle, and a glass bowl of grapefruit glowing like ambrosia in the candlelight and the blue-black before sunrise. What bliss to see her, to keep quiet so her head did not lift from her page, to roll over and into sleep again and leave her to her solitude.
Slowly, this last year, my family and I adjusted to pandemic life and assembled what we needed. Grandparents, friends, the park, school. My little one delights in the accumulation of hours with her parents and brother. Even my partner’s terrifying experience of COVID left us with certain gifts: mostly appreciation. Love.
Can I ask this? Where in this pandemic have I sought and found pleasure?
Can I say that in the midst of all this tragedy a woman has a right to her solitude and her skin and her quiet and her mind?
All of it that I give myself comes with the calculations of what I must give up. This is not necessarily the worst thing: it can be the math of a busy life. But perhaps I can stop asking myself what I owe her, or my great-grandmother, or my mother.
Maybe then I could oil the tub gleaming in the sun from the garden.
Or maybe I could just ask everyone else to wash out their own tub before their own bath.
Until the moment of writing that sentence, it never occurred to me.
Words by Jade Sanchez-Ventura / Images by Ro Agents-Juska
In the series “Home is Where We…”, two women artists, raising children in Brooklyn and Detroit, consider the domestic spaces in which we’ve sheltered.