It is decided: the first poem in A Little-Known Book will be “Fels-Naptha.” Yes, as in the soap. A poem about wash day at Grandma’s house now seems the perfect choice. My mother’s adoptive mother, Louise Catherine Adelaide Bauman, her snowy cloud of hair billowed in its net; her cotton apron, like her dress, homemade, brought stability to my early life. I always say this–that she provided stability–as though the very ground beneath my feet had otherwise sometimes tilted to a dangerous degree. Perhaps you, too, have just such a definite legacy that was left to you. Here is the poem.



Grandma, in taking cleanliness

for godliness, scrubbed whatever

needed it. Never scrimp on soap,

she’d say. Frugal Grandma, watching

her pennies, saved the rainwater

from off the roof to rinse her hair.


On wash day when the old rag rugs,

like our white underthings, were wrung,

our small hands reached up to fasten

the clothespins ‘gainst the tugging wind.

Then we’d sit on the front porch step

near Grandma in her rocking chair.


Here in my sunny laundry room

I unfold the paper wrapping

from a brand-new bar of soap.

Breathing its fragrance is enough

to let me hear her say again,

First we do all our work, then rest.