As I go about cleaning out my parents apartment – my mother passed away in February, my father in 2005 -- two objects elude me and may well no longer exist, victims of those tidal forces that have a way of making things vanish over time, the equivalent of the human-induced shifting of tectonic plates.
Among those forces are family members missing a sentimental streak or perhaps a mother’s helper who had no sense of the majesty that a particular object, that may bear more than a passing resemblance to trash, occupied in family history and lore.
I’m referring in particular to my grammar school athletic ribbons – more about them later – and, more significantly my father’s giant soap ball.
What do you do – yes I’m talking to you – when your current bar of soap has been reduced to little more than a fragrant shard? Do you toss it in the garbage or down the toilet? Keep using it, even though producing lather becomes an increasingly energetic challenge, until it vanishes down the drain?
My father melded it into shards from earlier baths and showers until he’d achieved the critical mass to create a new, if motely and schizophrenically scented, bar of soap.
But I suppose he couldn’t keep up with all the soap shards a family with four sons produced because the ball kept growing. First it was the size of a ping pong ball. Then a baseball. I’m thinking that when he retired the object – he’d long since given up the conceit of actually using it to bathe; the thing had essentially become a family member – it was the size of a bowling ball.
But I may be selling him short. It might have reached the approximate circumference of a basketball.
So he put it away, somewhere in my parents’ apartment.
I considered it a monument to something, though what I’m not exactly sure. The passage of time? (By then it included hundreds if not thousands of spent bars of soap.) Radical frugality? Obsessive-compulsive disorder?
My dream was one day to display it as an art object in the room upstate that includes framed snapshots from his war years as well as autographed photographs of famous people he’d met over the course of his travels and career as a journalist – Einstein, Helen Keller, Carl Sandburg.
I visualized the soap ball sitting atop a Plexiglas plinth. Or at least a pedestal of some sort, encased in glass. Sort of like one of those Etruscan urns at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
But I’m losing hope of finding it; the soap ball isn’t hiding where I would have expected it to be and there’s some thought that one of my mother’s caregivers, who in a paroxysm of industriousness embarked on a campaign to rid the house of dust (a fool’s errand since my parents had lived in the same pre-war -- and by pre-war I mean pre World War I -- apartment since the Pleistocene) tossing objects she thought attracted dirt.
When I earlier referred to tidal forces these are the kind of well-intentioned, irrational, cruel, or simply ignorant currents of everyday life I’m talking about. The best example of this, and I’ve heard this sad tale many times, is mothers who throw out their children’s baseball cards, not appreciating their talismanic value.
I’ve thought of calling the caregiver, a lovely woman, to confirm my fears. But I’m not sure how I’d do so without sounding accusatory or just petty and stupid. Who, in their right mind, cares what happened to a ball of soap, no matter how epic?
Now about my grammar school athletic ribbons. I’m confident those haven’t been thrown out. As soon as I won them my mother confiscated them. The reason is that nothing impressed her as much as athletic ability, perhaps because she was so profoundly unathletic herself.
My greatest triumph, the pinnacle of my career in the bodily-kinesthetic arts came when I won the Field Day trophy in fifth grade. Fortunately, the trophy I still have and it occupies a prominent place on my Manhattan bookshelf. Those who receive the Nobel Prize know no greater acclaim than I did that afternoon when I returned from the heroic playing fields of Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx.
A cake with candles awaited me. And when I requested my allowance be increased that week to fifty cents so I could purchase the double issue of Mad magazine then on newsstands, the wish was granted without protest.
Also, I happened to be a profoundly mediocre student. So excellence in any arena was to be celebrated.
Somewhere, I’m confident, in some fraying plastic bag or manila envelope, under a pile of clothes in my mother’s drawer, or in some yet undiscovered nook or cranny, my ribbons exist.
And when I find them I’ll rejoice. Whether they’ll provoke more or less elation that uncovering that mystical soap ball is impossible to predict.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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