Sometime in my teens The Body Shop arrived at the local mall. Today, on the rare occasion I am forced to enter such a place, I steer clear this trendy little cosmetic store. The fumes it emits make my head swim and eyes water. I can no longer tolerate the perfumes. For a while I could not even enter stores like Bed, Bath, and Beyond. The invisible barrier of scents was like a wall of fire.
When I was a kid, though, The Body Shop offered me the perfect place where I could buy my mother Christmas gifts on the little bits of money I scratched together. I found those bright oval soaps so cheery, and I loved the scents of kiwi, mandarin orange, and satsuma. For just a few dollars those soaps filled out my mother’s stocking well.
They looked great and smelled nice, but as soap they were hardly practical. In the shower they melted into a sudsy green or orange pool of chemical cream. The while film in the dish reminded me of a rainbow with glaucoma. On the sink they left a hard wax crust. Honestly, I could never shake the feeling that they weren’t actually soaps—that they didn’t so much clean the body as coat it with a microthin layer of wax. All these years later we still have some of those bars of soap around, and dig them out from time to time to watch them melt in the shower or cement themselves to the sink.
What The Body Shop did, though, was open up a market for beautiful soaps. Not long after, much like the microbrew sensation of today or the hipster tea movement of yesteryear, artisan soaps began filling the farmer’s markets and Christmas craft sales. Bathrooms were soon decorated with rough hewn blocks of soap fashioned from free range goat’s milk or Himalayan glacier salt or Arctic seal blubber. You can see a gorge-raising parody in Fight Club if you want to remember the trends of the times.
The problem was that these well-loved products of the artisans’ hands gave us soaps that were simply too good to use. Like the Scotch that is too old to share, or the leather-bound journal that is too epic to write in, these artisan soaps were too precious to use on something as mundane as removing dirt from skin. So, all across North American, bathrooms were adorned with tiny pastel inukshuks of beautifully smelling soaps.
I think I knew my mother was really going to die when I pulled out one of her artisan soaps. This one had a spicy smell, more like an herb garden than a flower monger’s stall. I don’t know where mom ever picked it up, but I would guess it was a Christmas gift or farewell party token of some kind. I pulled off the craftsman’s seal and washed my hands.
It was time to use all the good soaps.
Now I am at my mother’s hospital bed. As she sleeps, head tilted forward on her collapsing chest, she is still for a moment. When moments become seconds, she heaves in a great breath of air. At night I watch, sometimes, wondering which one of these breaths will be the last one. For some reason I want to see her last breath.
It has happened quickly. I am still using that same bar of soap in my mother’s bathroom, the bar I opened when I knew the chemo wouldn’t work. As my mother’s body wastes away, I am amazed at how little of the soap is used. Life can be spent so quickly.
Even now, as we are enjoying favourite wines and meals for the last time, using the artisan soap seems like wanton luxury—a billion dollar yacht in a five dollar room. As I breath in the fragrance and role the hard-edged milky bar in my hand, I cannot help but ask this absurd question: what are we saving the good soaps for?