Nora took her first bubble bath today. I know it sounds cute, but I have to confess it was one of those accidentally picturesque moments. I hadn’t planned for it to be a bubble bath at all, but in the two days since Nora’s previous bath, the bottle of baby shampoo left on its side in the bottom of the tub had leaked out half its contents, forming a giant slick – something I didn’t notice until I turned on the water full blast and it foamed all over the place. Not one to waste a perfectly good half-bottle of shampoo, I tossed Nora in and figured “Well at least she’ll SMELL GREAT when she’s done.”
Nora was thrilled with the new development. She plowed through the tub on her hands and knees and then sat there in baby-ecstasy, flapping her arms up and down in the suds. Of course this is Nora we’re talking about – the child with the mantra: “everything’s better in my mouth” – so she soon began eating the bubbles. After sampling a few, she looked up at me pensively. “Mmmm…” her look seemed to say, “an opaque vintage but with a light-bodied bouquet of sodium laureth sulfate. And do I detect a hint of woodsy polyquaternium-10?”
Normally when I give Nora a bath, I enjoy watching her play, but today I felt anxious and trapped. Since I couldn’t leave her alone, I sat on the toilet lid thinking about the many things I needed to get done. I should be grading papers. I could be moving the laundry to the dryer. If only I had thought to bring my laptop into the bathroom with me so I could be productive.
Nora sucked on a soapy washcloth and when I tried to take it away, she latched on with her four pointy teeth and let out a foamy growl like a rabid dog. I let her keep it. What is sodium laureth sulfate anyway? It couldn’t possibly be worse than the used Kleenex and lint balls she eats when she’s on dry land. She splashed some more and flashed me a smile. Softening a little, I thought, “I’ve got to stop RESENTING the inconveniencies of having children.” I love my kids. I worked hard to get each one of them into this world. They are the most important part of my otherwise unremarkable life. So why do I sometimes act like they are in my way? Why do I measure my days by Nora’s nap schedule and look forward to Gabie’s hour of Sesame Street and breathe a crazed sigh of relief when they finally all drop off to sleep at night? Why do I feel like I’m wasting time watching Nora play in the tub?
I’m not going to say I love this painting by Mary Cassatt because, truthfully, it has always bothered me a little. Even given the shortage of full-sized bathtubs in the late 19th century, it seems illogical to have a mother on the floor, bathing her daughter in a tiny porcelain bowl. As if that’s really going to do much good. And I hope the mom plans to get all wet in the process because you know it’s bound to happen. Plus, I want to know if the bath is just starting up or just winding down, because either the child should be dirty or the water should. How can they both be so impossibly clean?
After Nora’s bath today, with a little more patience and a lot less cynicism, I’m looking at the painting fresh and accepting it for what it is: a mother bathing her daughter as if she had nothing more important to do. By magnifying the simple gesture – using it to fill the entire canvas – Cassatt shows us its value. There is room for nothing extraneous. The base of the jug, the rest of the furniture, the woman’s own feet: all fall outside the artist’s judicious framing. We focus only on the mother and child, who in turn focus on the water, the foot, the touch. Imbued with significance and even a sense of the sacred, the scene reminds me of other paintings I’ve seen of Christ washing the feet of his disciples. Cassatt’s use of the small basin of water and the downcast eyes take on new meaning in light of the religious parallel. Suddenly the scene – one I used to consider ordinary – is less about the bathing of a child and more about service as the ultimate expression of love.