I don’t know if I look or am much like my mother, Cecilia Moonen Salzl, but I would like to be remembered like this memory I have of her.
When I was about nine years old, in 1952, I had the opportunity to see in my mother’s eyes complete devotion and perfect love for a new-born baby. I watched my mother bathe one of my younger sisters, probably a day or two after she was born, the birth having taken place in the farmhouse.
The bath took place in the country kitchen of our simple pale-pink stucco, four-bedroom vernacular style farmhouse. The kitchen was long and narrow yet spacious. Cabinets lined one wall. A large porcelain sink rested in the center of the cabinets. A black-iron, wood-burning cook-stove heated the kitchen and sat along the opposite wall, next to a tall, narrow cabinet we referred to as our chimney cabinet—the chimney had been converted to cabinet space when a new forced-air furnace was put into the house. Between the chimney cabinet and cook-stove was a small corner area with a few cabinets and a counter that served only as a junk-collector. An empty space tucked between the two cabinets was just big enough for me to stand in.
I watched as my mother dipped warm water out of the stove’s reservoir—a tank on the side of the stove that held water. She poured it into a pink-rimmed porcelain basin and opened the oven door, heating the room to a temperature ideal for a new baby’s bath. She set the basin of warm water on the open door. Into the basin she put a soft, new, white, wash-cloth and a bar of sweet-smelling soap that permeated the entire room. (She also put that sweet-smelling soap in the drawer that held the baby’s clothes. I think it was called Cashmere Bouquet.)
Mother set a ladder-back wooden chair in front of the stove and retrieved the baby from the crib in her bedroom and sat down on the chair, the tiny baby on her lap. Mother wore a blue-flowered dress covered with a no-longer-white apron. She had gray hair by this time. It was tied up in a ring around her head. Tendrils of hair would creep out of the roll but she didn’t seem to notice. I felt like going over and tucking them back into the roll.
In the comfortable warmth of the room she undressed the baby completely and began to wash her with the white washcloth. As she washed each little finger, toe, and wrinkle, with the sweet-smelling soap, her eyes searched for any imperfections, and judging from the serene look on her face, she found none. The soap-smell wafted over to me. If mother was aware of me standing in the corner of the room, I’m not sure. It did not matter. She was completely wrapped up in her task. She washed the baby’s body—her bottom, arms and legs, the creases in her neck and legs and under her arms.
Last of all, she carefully washed the baby’s soft, dark hair with the wash cloth, all the while humming and talking softly. I did not understand the words as they were for the baby alone. She reached for a small pitcher of warm water from the top of the stove, tested it for warmth with her fingers, then poured it carefully over the baby’s soapy head, over and over until the suds were gone and the hair sparkled like dew on morning grass. The baby did not cry, she cooed joyfully. By the time the baby was bathed, mother knew every inch of the baby and she knew her baby was perfect in every way.
Amid the turmoil of noise and commotion of a large family all around her, chores that were waiting for her and children playing, screaming, and moving about throughout the rest of the house, mother was completely absorbed in her task. She saw only the new baby on her lap, her blue eyes smiling as she admired her precious new creation.
Once dried with a fresh, fluffy white towel, (everything was new), mother carefully dressed the baby in a white flannel diaper, fastened with shiny pink diaper pins, a fresh new undershirt, and a pink kimono—which was what she called the little loose-fitting dress new-born babies wore in those days.
Mother combed the baby’s hair into a curl on top of her head. She smiled down at the baby, making eye-contact. Without looking up, she kissed the top of the baby’s head and carried her into her bedroom where she sat on the edge of the bed and nursed. (I followed her and watched.) When done, she put the sleeping baby into her crib and walked into the kitchen a different person. She lifted a pan onto the stove and began the task of feeding the rest of the family.
I will never forget how soft my mother’s touches were, how her vocal sounds were like a dove’s coos meant only for the baby—it was their special language—how her eyes never strayed from the child; how completely and unconditionally she loved her new baby.
I knew that day that she probably bathed me and all my siblings in the same way shortly after birth. I have a small, blue birthmark in my right hand that she told me she noticed the first time she bathed me. Maybe this day I am remembering my own first bath.