Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Of Soap and Shells

My grandma passed away more than two months ago, and I still find myself waking and wondering if I can fit a trip across the state line to see her on that day. She left a void that will never be filled. 

Throughout the years Grandma gave me many things that I’ll forever hold close to my heart. Her cowboy boots, Granddad’s cowboy boots, and old love letters between the two of them written in the 1940s. Since her passing, our large family has worked to clean out her homestead, each family combing through years of memories, collectibles and “stuff”. 

Three generations have gone through closets, looked under beds and cleaned off bookshelves. We’ve taken oak dressers, beloved toys from our childhood, photos of champion Holstein heifers from the 1960s and record players with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys still in the play position.

I took shells and soap. 

One day the kids and I drove to Grandma’s and began sorting through things that we might want to keep forever. In Granddad’s old room, Caroline dug eagerly (we were on a treasure hunt of sorts) through a filing cabinet and found a bag of seashells. She was elated; I was confused. 

My grandparents were not regular vacationers because they had livestock. When hundreds of animals depend on you for their food (or, their milking twice a day), you do not often leave. You can’t often leave. But there were occasions when Granddad would come in from the barn and tell Grandma to pack a bag, they were going on a trip tomorrow. Sometimes they went to Virginia to visit Charlie Potter, a man they ran cattle with on the rolling green hills of the Shenandoah Valley. Once they drove to western Nebraska and showed up on the ranch house steps of a college friend of mine, only because they wanted to see how farming was different in Nebraska compared to Ohio. And apparently, at least once they went to a beach.

I was surprised to find seashells amongst farm paperwork in a filing cabinet, but I was relieved. 

Because seashells meant he – and grandma – took a break from the work of the farm to enjoy themselves. Seashells meant that he traveled far enough to see new land and meet new people that would become a part of his life’s story. Seashells meant that at some point he rested in between the hundreds of decisions it takes to operate a farm, and maybe even put his feet in the ocean. I hope he at least took off his boots. 

That afternoon, I also took soap. 

I have a habit of taking the unopened hotel soaps (lotions, shampoos, coffee…..what is wrong with me?) home with me when I travel. I figure if the Wagon Wheel Inn outside Lusk, Wyoming offered the goodies, I might as well return home with a souvenir. I get this habit honestly, and while cleaning out Grandma’s house I also found a bathroom drawer (maybe two) full of hotel soaps. Pony Soldier Motor Inn, Urbana-Lincoln Hotel, and one bar that didn’t have a name, but did advertise “wall to wall carpet” and a “24 hour switchboard” – whatever that is. Each ancient bar represents places she’d been, while out on a great voyage off the farm. She kept those soaps, and now I will, too. 

To me, these petite hotel soaps represent the exploration of unfamiliar places where she need not cook for the family and hired help or wash milkers. She simply had to be open to the road, likely interpreting the map, and ready for the next adventure. At some point in her 89 years, these soaps represent her courage to leave the farm – and trust me, it takes courage to leave the care of your livestock up to someone else – and see another part of this beautiful country. Even if they did sleep at the Pony Soldier Motor Inn.

Grandma and Granddad left many legacies, but today I think about the lesson they’ve taught in soap and shells. 

No matter how hard you work, how little quit you have in you, or how hard you find it to disconnect – everyone deserves to rest. To step away. To take a break. To explore. Maybe it is a morning walk in the fresh snow when you can’t seem to focus on graduate school studies. Maybe it is a Sunday afternoon drive to see someone you miss. Maybe it is getting back to a hobby you’ve abandoned because life keeps you too busy. Or perhaps, it’s a cross-country adventure just to discover new land and unfamiliar faces. 


The work will be here when you get back, but experiences don’t wait.

And if you do find a place that has something worth packing home, do so. You never when those tokens will serve an entirely new purpose. 

In writing this, our daughter asked what the tiny bars of soap were. I told her they were part of her inheritance. She appeared confused, but hopefully one day she'll get it. 

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