Saturday, April 11, 2020

COVID-19 Chronicles: Grief, Camay and the Wailing Wall of Soap

Image of Rachel Krell ©Michelle Krell Kydd 

I built a small wall of soap in the lower section of my linen closet after my mother died in 2017. It started with a few three-packs and eventually became the Wailing Wall of soap. It got started after I overheard a conversation between my sister and my cousin regarding our mothers' hoarding habits.

My aunt collected boxes of classic Camay soap like they were bars of gold (the original pink "classic" bar is no longer in production, but available from international distributors online and on eBay). My mother, G-d rest her soul, collected cleaning products to support a housekeeping habit driven by obsessive-compulsive disorder. After she died I took up Camay hoarding. It made no sense.

The last conversation I had with my aunt was not a pleasant one. She had a knack for being mean-spirited and uncouth. I still remember how she upset my mother at my father’s funeral. My mother grew increasingly teary as my aunt badgered her about headstone placement on my father's grave. Mom was too grief-stricken to respond.

I told my aunt that headstone placement was a family issue and that we’d take care of it. “I am family," she insisted, her tone more autocratic than loving. “You are not immediate family," I said. My eyes shifted towards my mother as my aunt went silent and walked away. Years later she and my mother are separated by one grave in the same cemetery, reconciled by death.

I collected classic Camay soap after my mother died because it's one of three beautifully scented soaps that I remember from childhood; Camay, Jergens and Cashmere Bouquet. It wasn't until the COVID-19 pandemic that I understood why I built a Wailing Wall of soap after my mother died. The comforting scent of Camay helped me integrate stages of grief I couldn't wash away.

Bars of soap, from humble bargain brands, expensive luxury soaps and everything in between prevent COVID-19 infection via hand-washing. I have three bars of Camay left. I want Camay to remain an olfactory madeleine of comfort. I don't want to confuse the smell of Camay with the dislocating grief of the pandemic, which deserves its own madeleine.

A madeleine is a sense object that triggers a memory. The term is derived from a passage in In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust. The transporting memory is triggered by the taste of a madeleine pastry dipped in lime blossom tea.

Recommended reading: You are Proust: The Case for Developing Your Olfactory Mind.

"When a Trusted Brand Disappears," by Ricki Morrell unpacks nostalgia for Camay in the November 20, 2010 edition of The New York Times. You can find the article here. Login or subscription is required.