The Bath

Illustration: Yuta Onoda

New Year’s Eve has come and gone, and I’m still thinking of my mother.

“Never go to bed dirty on New Year’s Eve,” my mother said. “You have to take a bath before you go to sleep, or you’ll fly away during the night, transformed into a bat.” Which neighbor had told her that? Mr. Naka? Mr. Miyahara? She didn’t pass this on as truth. She simply gave it to me as it was given to her. If I didn’t take a bath, she said, it might be best if she tied my foot to the bed. 

I loved taking baths with my mother. I wanted a Japanese bath just so I could sit in the tub with her. The process of building my new home had already begun when I had the vision, though, and Japanese baths require a floor drain. It was too late to add one. 

“I can’t have a Japanese bath,” I told my dad. “Can’t be done.”

But my dad wouldn’t give up, and at last the plumber found a way. He installed a soaking tub, a deep rectangle of white porcelain. Most important, he installed a drain into the floor next to it, making it possible for Mom and me to wash before our baths. “The Japanese
kamisama—the deities—like cleanliness,” my great-uncle had once told me. “They like everything very, very clean.” God forbid that anyone soak in dirty water.

How I loved getting into the water with my mother! I’d draw the bath and phone her when the tub was almost full. If I looked out my kitchen window, I could see her making her way across her driveway and down mine, 4 feet 11 inches of solid power picking her way through the snow in her winter boots—size 5. 

Bath ready, we’d walk into the anteroom, take off our clothes and step naked through the door into a separate world, where we were embraced by the steam rising from clear water and the rich, earthy red of the tiled floor.

Mom and I sat next to each other on low stools. We scrubbed ourselves with rough Japanese washcloths, lathered our hair, and then ladled out the hot bathwater, helping each other rinse. She poured cascades of water over my head, and I did the same for her. 

Then, the fullest pleasure. We stepped into the bath together, where we lay not side by side but facing each other, hip to hip, bouncing gently off the bottom of the tub, floating, soaking.

Atsui neh, Mom would exclaim. Ii kimochi. She rarely used Japanese, except in the bath. The water must have brought back memories of childhood baths and the language she spoke first. Ah, it’s hot. How good this feels.

One night, I remember, my mother sat up, and my eyes were caught by the sight of her bare skin. In all my life, I have only seen complexions that are dark, or olive, or almond, or white. My mother’s breasts that night had a hue: blue. Heat must have expanded hundreds of tiny veins, which shone through her thinning skin and made it the color of the winter sky, past dusk, just before nightfall.

Who can I bathe with now? Oh Mother, how I miss you! What did I know when I was young? What did I know of forever?

Kesaya E. Noda, '73, is a writer and the founder of Your Life, Your Family Stories. She and her husband, Chris, live in new Hampshire, where they grow Christmas trees and blueberries.