Remembering my mother’s smile.
When you’re a kid living dirt poor and struggling, about the only thing worth remembering is your mother’s smile.
My family lived in a small eastern Iowa town, near the Wisconsin and Illinois borders. Mom and Dad were raising us three kids in a five-room, cold-water flat they had rented. A commode had been installed under the stairs when I was four, but we hadn’t worked up to hot water yet. That would take another decade, and another house.
Like her mother before her, my mother had a hankering for pretty things, though she rarely got them. She especially liked the idea of special dishes just for company, to show her visitors she thought highly enough of them to get out the good china. An extra set of dishes beyond our daily ones, though, was well out of her barely-there budget.
Then Duz came along.
In the early 1950s, Procter & Gamble produced a boxed powdered soap called “Duz” with the tag line, “Duz does Everything!” claiming the soap worked even in the hardest water. It was the company’s promotional gimmick, though, that got my mother interested: the company was offering a set of china dishes absolutely free! One dish item, white with a golden wheat pattern and gold edging, would be placed in the box of Duz in a specified order, eventually providing the loyal and dedicated shopper with the complete set of china dishes, good enough for company…or so figured my mom.
Faithfully each week, she returned home from her grocery shopping in an excited flush, eager to add to her growing collection of “best china.” On one unusual day, I was a particularly well-behaved little girl. For a reward, Mom allowed me to pull out the prize.
The cardboard box was rough and strong, so I ripped off the top with a hard yank.
“Careful! Careful! You don’t want to break the dish!” Mom admonished.
I slowed down. I didn’t want to smash anything so precious as Mom’s special dishes. I reached my small hand much more carefully into the box. Mom stood eagerly by, waiting, while I continued my quest for the buried treasure.
The soap was grainy, feeling like the stuff could be fun if were something you could build forts with. But it was soap, and if I didn’t wash it off my fingers, would have it in my eyes and mouth and, as everybody knows, would sting and taste bad. My fingers soon hit upon something smooth and hard.
“I found it!’ I said excitedly. I gripped it and started to pull my hand out when Mom shouted, “Don’t get the soap all over!” I stopped in mid-box, then resumed a straightforward pulling action, ignoring how the cardboard side was scratching my wrist. I got the dish to the top and saw that it was a cup.
“Pour out the soap first!” my mother instructed.
I emptied the cup, pulled it free of the box, and proudly handed it to my mother. She carefully took it from me, turned around, and walked to the sink, where she lovingly washed it, proclaiming as she set it in the cupboard next to the other dishes she had been accumulating, “There! I’ll soon have a complete set and can get a couple extras in case one breaks.”
It was then I noticed she had completely abandoned the box of soap. I asked, “What about the soap?”
“Oh,” she said disinterestedly as she nodded her head in the direction of the sink counter. “Just set the box over there.”
I walked to the counter and set the opened box down. I turned and looked at Mom. She was still busy fussing with her growing “company” dishes. Eventually, she did acquire a whole complete set for eight, with a few extra, and rolled out the dishes proudly whenever company came and she wanted to set a pretty table. I’m pretty sure she never once used the soap for her laundry or the dishes.
As the decades passed and with both my parents gone, I began to think often of my childhood. Mom, Duz soap and her dishes, would always come to mind. As I collected my own sets of good china – not out of a detergent box, thank you kindly – I found myself unable to stop wondering what had happened to those “company” dishes. None of my siblings, I knew, were interested. I browsed antique stores, hoping to find a cup and saucer, or a plate. But, I had no luck. In time, I forgot about the Duz dishes with the golden wheat pattern.
Last spring, an unexpected package arrived for me, marked “fragile.” My honey had ordered me something as a surprise. I smiled. He was always doing cool things like that.
I carefully cut the tape and opened the box, seeing that it contained a few things wrapped in bubble wrap. I reached in, avoiding getting my arms scratched on the flaps of the box, and pulled out the top item. A bit of gold edging peered through the bubble wrap. I knew it was a plate….but it just couldn’t be that plate!
Forgetting about the “fragile” part now, I hurriedly tore off the bubble wrap. There in my hand was a miracle: one of my mom’s plates, with the golden wheat pattern and gold edging.
When every item was unwrapped, I stood back and stared at the dishes. I had unearthed a matching platter, two bowls, a cup, a saucer, and a drinking glass. Memories of my mom proudly serving her food on these special dishes washed over me. There was no way these could have been hers, but then again…they could have been.
I fingered the golden wheat stalk on the plate. I traced the gold around its edge. I lifted the cup, remembering the honor I had been given of pulling one out of the box of Duz. I washed the dishes and set them on a shelf in my hutch.
A few weeks later, through the wonders of online bidding, I acquired an unopened vintage box of Duz, and set it on the shelf next to my dishes. I stepped back and viewed the ensemble.
It wasn’t just soap and a few odd dishes I was seeing: it was my mother’s smile; her little bit of beauty in a harsh world, gathered painstakingly piece by piece, week after week – a reward for her persistence and patience.
That little box of Duz soap proved to my mom that no matter who you are, or what station you serve in life, your dreams can still come true.
Like the one I had as a little girl, seeing my mom standing tall and looking people in the eye with pride.
Duz did do everything.
At least, as far as I was concerned.
— (c) St. John 2007