“Make your loop come back to the line before you swing out,” Ida said to Robert. She was making Charles and Robert practice their cursive handwriting.
The boys were sitting at the kitchen table. Ida had given them ball point pens and yellow paper with thin blue lines, and she was having them practice the letter l over and over again.
“Your father has beautiful handwriting, and I want you to have beautiful handwriting, too,” Ida reminded them. “Robert, you’re not bringing your loop all the way back to the line first.”
Robert found these exercises intensely boring. His mother would go for weeks without making him sit down for a session of cursive practice, then, for some reason, she would get the idea of forcing him and his brother to fill line after line with the same letter of the alphabet. Robert could only imagine how bored his older brother must be. Charles had already been using cursive for two years. How could he stand to sit there for an hour or more while forming the letter e endlessly?
The numbers were even worse—or so it seemed to Robert.
“Robert, you’re not closing your zeros at the top. Let me show you,” Ida would say, as she took the pen from his hand and, reaching over his shoulder, demonstrated a proper zero. “See? Make sure your loop comes all the way back again so that the top of the zero looks exactly the same as the bottom.”
Robert would take up the pen and write 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0—filling the line.
Not quite all the letters and numbers in the book were designed in quite the same way as the foot-tall white letters and numbers printed on heavy cards with dark green backgrounds that lined the tops of Mrs. Arvin’s chalkboards, but they were similar enough to meet the teacher’s demanding standards.
One sunny Saturday afternoon, when the family had returned from the boys’ piano lessons in Lafayette—and Ida’s shopping spree—Ida said to Charles and Robert, “We’re going to make soap today.”
The family did not have to make soap. Ida bought bars when she shopped. Once, she had permitted the boys to use paring knives to carve Ivory bars into the shapes of recumbent lions such as the concrete ones that lined the driveway of the occasional house. Ida had clipped the lion pattern from a magazine. When the lions were finished, she had made the boys wait to float them in the bathtub. Ida wanted to be sure that Grandma Rhode and Aunt Margaret saw the lions first, before they were rubbed into sudsy lumps.
Always the teacher, Ida had a reason for making her own soap: she wanted to show the boys how it had been done when she was a girl. She skipped the step that Grandma Rhode and Aunt Margaret would have followed of boiling hardwood ashes for half an hour in rain water, then skimming the lye off the top. Ida reached for her can of Gillett’s Lye, which she had purchased at a grocery store.
While Ida tied on her apron, she put Charles and Robert to work in the kitchen.
“Charles, how many pints are in a quart?” Ida asked.
“Two,” Charles answered.
“How many cups are in a pint?”
“Then how many cups are in a quart?”
“That’s right. Measure out four cups from this gallon of lard,” Ida said, handing Charles the tin measuring cup and a butter knife to scrape the lard level at the upper edge of the cup.
Meanwhile, Ida measured slightly less than 4 1/2 ounces of lye, which she accurately weighed on the kitchen scale. She handed Robert a Pyrex 4-cup measure and a pitcher of water from the hydrant beside the well in the front yard.
“Robert, pour the water up to the 10-ounce line here,” said Ida, pointing to the line.
Next, she carefully carried the water, the lye, and a heavy Dutch oven outside.
“Never pour the water into the lye,” Ida warned. “When I pour the lye into the water, the bowl is going to become very hot. Don’t touch anything!”
Robert and Charles kept a safe distance while Ida slowly poured the water into the Dutch oven and the lye into the water.
“We’re going to let that cool,” Ida said. “Let’s go back to the kitchen.”
Ida melted the lard over low heat on the range. Then she told the boys to remain in the kitchen while she brought in the lye and water mixture.
She set the Dutch oven on the table and handed Robert a big wooden spoon.
“You’re going to wash that spoon in this clean bowl,” Ida said, as she poured clear vinegar in the bowl. “Scrub the spoon with this Ivory soap and keep rinsing it in the vinegar until I tell you to stop.”
“You can quit rinsing now,” Ida said after a few minutes. She took the spoon from Robert and ran water over it from the faucet at the kitchen sink.
“Stand back, while I pour the lye and water into the lard,” she instructed. She slowly poured the contents of the Dutch oven into the lard that had been melted on the stove and kept hot. Lifting the wooden spoon from the towel where the spoon had been drying, she quickly began stirring the lye and water into the lard. “Watch what happens!” she said.
Robert and Charles looked on while the mixture turned into something resembling cake batter. Ida kept lifting the spoon and dribbling some of the batter across the surface. After about five minutes, the dribbled line kept its shape for a time before becoming submerged. Ida put a lid on the pot and kept it hot for an hour. Then she called the boys back into the kitchen.
They watched while she poured the mixture into a sheet cake pan.
“Now we’re ready to wait until tomorrow,” Ida said.
The next day, Ida used a sharp knife to cut the soap into large rectangular bars, which were a deep tan color from the Gillett’s Lye. One bar lasted for months and had a pure scent unlike store-bought soaps.
Joe stepped into the kitchen and admired the bars of soap.
“I think you boys deserve a treat after helping Mom make soap,” he said. “I have to go to the elevator, so you come along, and you can have a Coke.”
Charles and Robert happily climbed into the pickup, and Joe drove east on State Route 26 to the elevator.
Usually, the boys had to split one small bottle of Coke, but their father generously let each have his own bottle. Further, each could choose what kind of pop he wanted: Coke, root beer, orange, cream soda, or grape.
Joe dropped the coin into the slot at the left and opened the lid on top of the cooler. Charles went first. He wanted root beer. He took hold of the fluted cap and the bulged neck of the bottle and slid it along the slot in the metal channel that held the bottle upright. He continued to guide the bottle into the opening where he could lift it up and it was his. He inserted it into the enclosure where he could pry the cap off. Then (as he had been taught) he checked the top of the bottle to make sure the glass was not chipped. Had it been, he would have told his father, who would have told Mr. Hail, who would have given Joe a refund.
Robert wanted a grape soda, but it was blocked by bottles containing other flavors.
“Let me help,” Joe said. He slid bottles along channels and moved them out of the way like railroad cars at a switchyard until he could guide the grape bottle into the opening. He pried the cap off and handed the bottle to Robert. Finally, Joe helped himself to a Coke.
Nothing could have been better, unless Robert could have had a “black cow.” The float was made at home by combining vanilla ice cream and Coke in a tall glass. All the same, the grape soda was a delicious reward for helping his mother in the kitchen.