Mystery of the disappearing bar of soap

Sharon Kennedy

The other day I was squirting liquid soap on my hands as I washed them at the kitchen sink. That small gesture got me thinking about years ago when our soap dish held an orange bar of Lifebuoy. We all used it. Dad when he washed up after doing the barn chores. Mom when she was going to a PTA meeting. We kids scrubbed the daily grime from our face, neck, ears, and hands without giving the bar a second thought. The amazing thing is we all survived each other’s germs.

When Mom brought home our first bar of Ivory, I was awestruck. I couldn’t imagine how soap could float. It was a magical phenomenon unheard of in my little world. Ivory smelled nice, too, not like the medicinal odor of Lifebuoy and a whole lot better than the Fels-Neptha Mom used to scrub out stains on our clothes.

We didn’t have a regular bathroom in our old house, but we did have a washstand. It was a piece of furniture Dad nailed together. Its legs were small birch limbs. I have no idea what the top was made of because Mom covered it with yellow checked oilcloth held in place with thumb tacks. In those days, just about everything was secured with a couple of tacks–the calendars that covered our walls, the oilcloth on the pantry table, even the trim on a fancy wooden chair.

A white granite wash dish and a saucer that held the soap were stationary items on our washstand. I don’t remember when Mom bought our first official soap dish, but I’m sure we made a fuss about it. In the old days, country people got excited about things now considered trivial. Who cares about a fancy dish for a bar of soap? Well, we did. At least I think we did, but I could be mistaken. How much trivia can a brain retain without going whacky?

Well, anyway, I always feel a little guilty when I reach for liquid soap instead of Camay or Zest or whatever bar soap I would usually put in my shopping cart. It took me a long time to purchase the liquid stuff. I cling to traditions of the past like a burr clings to clothing. When Flash gave me an expensive bottle of soap guaranteed to kill all bacteria, I used it to scrub my toilet. When a niece splashed out cash at Bath & Body, I splashed the lavender scent all over my tub. The corker came when a friend visited and chastised me for not getting with the times.

You know you’re licked when a 75 year old bachelor who showers once a week gives you the dickens over a bar of soap. He pointed out all the dangers inherent in sharing the same bar. Why, he said, it would be like sharing the same toothbrush or fork or towel. When I told him there’s only one hand towel in my bathroom, I thought his heart would give out. I explained I’m the only one who uses it, but he was undeterred. He asked what if an unexpected guest stopped by and wiped her feet on my towel. Would I want to use it afterward on my face?

That’s when I knew the days of my soap dish were numbered, and it was time to get out my towels with “Guest” monogrammed on them. It never occurred to me there might be some merit in ads warning of the dangers involved in sharing. Flash used to tell me a hand towel held more germs than a toilet seat. I never paid any attention to what he said, but when an old trusted buddy shakes his finger at you, it’s curtains for tradition and onward to the present.

I bought my first bottle of colored liquid gel at the dollar store. I refused to pay more than $1.00 for something I didn’t want and felt pressured into buying. It stood next to my soap dish for at least a week before I twisted the top and popped up the squirter thingy. I had to admit it was a little more convenient than my bar soap, and it was a whole lot faster. Those extra seconds I saved could be added to my Netflix watching time. It was neater, too, and I didn’t have to worry about water in the soap dish or conversely, a bar getting old and stiff if it wasn’t used too often. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was hooked.

It’s an awful thing to forsake tradition. It’s turning your back on the old and embracing the new. It’s a rejection of the true and trusted and a leap of faith into the unknown. I know it’s only soap, but that’s how new things creep into our lives. Before we know it, our socks become dust rags, our buttons are replaced with Velcro, our oxfords give way to Reebok’s, and our bandanas are tucked in a drawer and forgotten.

But I’ll tell you a little secret. Behind my shower curtain is a yellow plastic soap dish with a metal handle. It’s hanging from a bar in my shower. In the dish is a fresh bar of Olay clinging to tradition like a stubborn old burr.

Editor’s note: Sharon M. Kennedy of Brimley is a humorist who infuses her musings with a hardy dose of matriarchal common sense. She writes about everyday experiences most of us have encountered at one time or another on our journey through life. Her articles are a combination of present day observations and nostalgic glances of the past. She can be reached via email at In addition, Sharon has compiled a collection of stories from her various newspaper columns. The title of her book is “Life in a Tin Can.” Copies are available from Snowbound Books on North Third Street in Marquette.