My Four Hundred Dollar Soap Carving

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Mary Jo’s “priceless” Soap carvings.
Mary Jo’s “priceless” Soap carvings.

by Mary Jo Shannon

When our son Harry was in elementary school, he became interested in soap carving. His first effort was a crude representation of a male figure, saluting. He continued his hobby, and during his year at Frieburg University in Germany, he was thankful he had developed this skill. The parents of the German exchange student whom we had hosted several years before invited him for a visit at Christmas. He purchased a piece of crystal for a gift, and was devastated when he dropped it in the train station. He would not have an opportunity to purchase another gift before boarding the train and Herr Schmang would be waiting to greet him. He discarded the glittering slivers and wondered what to do.

Fortunately, he remembered packing a cake of Ivory soap. He also had his trusty pocketknife, and while he rode across Germany, he carved a swan. The results pleased him – this was the most excellent carving he had ever made. With pride, he offered it to his hostess, explaining that it was made of soap, and he had carved it himself, especially for her.

But Frau Schmang spoke little English, and not understanding the significance of his carving, she placed it in the lavatory for the family’s use. He said it was painful to watch it slowly disappear down the drain.

I did not see the swan, but all the other carvings are on display in a sectional box frame at our home. I have kept them through the years, adding to the collection as Harry grew older and created more sophisticated subjects with increased attention to detail. I gave them names: “Salute!,” “At Bat,” “Banjo Pickin’,” (the banjo eventually broke off), “Take Ten,” “Happy Hour,” and the last one, “My Four Hundred Dollar Soap Carving.”

I had not had the opportunity to watch a work in progress, and when Harry asked me what I would like for my birthday, I quickly responded, “I’d like another soap carving and I’d like to watch you as you make it.”

Still in law school, he was home for the summer, working for a law firm. I thought he would be pleased I had not suggested something expensive, but something he could make himself.  I was a bit shocked at his response.

“Mom, you don’t know what you’re asking!”

Nevertheless, he bought a cake of Octagon soap – a long, brown bar of strong soap, which his grandmother used for stubborn stains on laundry day – I don’t know if it’s still on the market. He  began to form the figure of a person, working in the kitchen while I prepared dinner — night after night, after night! I was surprised how many hours he spent, creating a man seated on the ground, leaning against a tree stump. I kept account of them – eight long hours. I regretted my request that had cost him so much of his free time.

At last he landed me the finished product. Every detail was carefully carved into that humble bar of soap – the bark of the stump, the folds in the man’s clothing, his facial expression…

“Harry,” I said, “I truly did not know what I was asking. Why, at minimum wage, this exquisite carving would cost at least forty dollars!”

“Mom,” he replied, “I have news for you – I’m a law clerk now and ‘minimum wage’ is $50.00 an hour.”

That’s why I named this carving “My Four Hundred Dollar Soap Carving.”

Sometimes it pays not to be careful what you ask for.