The Woman Who Made Lye Soap

A parable of the real wealth of nations

Author: Scott Russell Sanders

When I was a young boy, living on a farm on the outskirts of Memphis, every now and again my mother would send me next door with a tin can of lard for Mrs. Fox, who used it to make lye soap. As I crossed the pasture on my errand, I could smell bacon and pork chops from the can of drippings, so no matter if I had just finished breakfast, I would be good and hungry by the time I reached Mrs. Fox’s house. She always made a great fuss over me when I arrived, invited me into her kitchen and offered me whatever had come out of the cookstove that morning, more often than not a baking soda biscuit slathered with butter and molasses. As I gobbled it, she might say, “You look one biscuit shy of full,” and she’d give me another one. White-haired, hunched over and wrinkled, she seemed old enough to be in the Bible, but her laugh sounded fresh as birdsong. She also fed me stories about her family and hard times and dreams, story after story, until I figured I’d better get on home, and then she sent me off with two or three bars of yellow soap, which smelled of mint.

“Tell your mama I’m much obliged, honey,” she would say, and I would answer, “Yes, ma’am, and thank you.”

These memories date from 1950 and early 1951, when I was 5 going on 6. In the summer of 1951, my family moved to an Army base in Ohio. I never saw Mrs. Fox again, but I learned a good deal more about her from my parents. She would have been about 60 when I knew her, a widow, nearly blind from cataracts, living alone after her children and grandchildren had moved north. She was a devout woman, active in a nearby church, known to be a healer with medicinal herbs and the laying on of hands. Soon after starting first grade, I came to realize from the way classmates spoke about the school janitor, a dark-skinned man, that Mrs. Fox was what people called Negro, colored or Black — labels never used by my parents, who referred to her only by name. My father had grown up in Mississippi, my mother in Chicago, and both knew all the labels, polite and ugly, that were used to separate people based on skin color, but they made no such distinctions when speaking of our neighbors.

Children are born without any notion of race, ethnicity, gender or nationality; they must be taught to divide people into boxes, and to attach meaning to those divisions — native and foreign, true believer and infidel, friend and enemy, straight and queer, us and them. The teaching occurs, often implicitly, in homes, schools and places of worship, on playgrounds and streets, on television and movie screens. My parents did not speak any differently about Mrs. Fox than about Mr. and Mrs. Hawkins, a couple who lived on the next farm down the road from ours, and whom I would later learn to see as white. My sister and I felt we could trust any of these neighbors if we needed help. And more than once, they got my sister or me out of a fix — cleaned a cut, rescued us from a mean dog, fed us when our father was working at the tire plant and our mother was down sick in bed, or offered us a place to hide out when tempers turned stormy back home.

My father kept Mrs. Fox’s woodpile stocked, and he plowed her garden plot each spring. In addition to exchanging lard and soap, she and my mother traded seeds back and forth from their most productive plants — pole beans for okra, maybe, or cantaloupe for cucumbers. They also traded jars of canned tomatoes, watermelon pickles, blackberry jam and other produce. My mother and Mrs. Hawkins shared fabric and dress patterns and recipes. They often steamed up our kitchen together, canning pickles or applesauce. I remember Mrs. Hawkins, Mrs. Fox and my mother sitting on our front porch shelling peas, their chatter as soothing to me as the sound of rain on a tin roof. My father and Mr. Hawkins loaned one another tools and swapped help with heavy work. Mr. Hawkins might bring over his pair of draft horses to pull out a stump from a field my father was clearing, and my father might join him to repair a fence or gather hay. I remember the two of them prying off the old shingles from the roof of Mrs. Fox’s house and nailing on new ones, the rap-rap of their hammers, their joking, their laughter.

Long after we had moved from our Tennessee farm, I asked my father if money had ever changed hands between those households, and he answered, “Lord, no. That was just neighboring.”

These memories rise in me at a time when a viral pandemic is scouring the globe; when measures to reduce the death toll from the disease have shuttered factories, curbed travel and bankrupted businesses, throwing millions of people out of work; when schools have closed, along with libraries, museums, theaters and stadiums; when the ecological havoc wrought by global heating has become ever more pressing; and when America, afflicted by all of these crises, is convulsed by mass protests, most of them peaceful but some of them violent, with arson and looting and pitched battles in the streets. Sparked by yet another death in the shameful saga of Black people killed by white police officers, the protests have spread from coast to coast, fueled not only by the toxic legacy of racism but also by a host of other grievances, including social and economic inequities, swelling prison populations, loss of health insurance, crippling student debt, unchecked pollution, endless wars and the erosion of democratic government.

More than a hundred passages in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament speak about money, and not a single one counsels us to make the pursuit of material wealth the goal of life. Quite the contrary.

Amid this turmoil, to summon up childhood memories might seem a nostalgic escape. By looking backward, however, I’m seeking a way forward. I’m recalling long-neglected values and practices that might help carry us through our present crisis to a more humane social order. The traditional name for these values and practices is “thrift.” The word may sound quaint in an age of rampant consumerism, but during a pandemic, when the spread of a virus can stop paychecks, disrupt supply chains, empty store shelves of essential goods and make shopping a risky venture, thrift appears to be a vital guide not merely to surviving but to flourishing.

Mrs. Fox leached the lye for her soap from woodstove ashes, crushed mint from her herb garden to make fragrant oil, then mixed the lye and oil with lard and rainwater, boiled the mixture into a slurry and poured it into a wooden mold. Over the next few weeks, the soap slowly cured until it was firm enough to be sliced into hand-sized pieces. She had learned each skillful step as a girl growing up in a sharecropper’s cabin. She kept no hogs, as our family did, and she cooked too little meat to collect much lard on her own, so the drippings my mother sent over were a useful gift, which she acknowledged by sending me home with those minty yellow bars.

I recognize now that Mrs. Fox was poor, although I did not see her as poor back then, just as I did not see her as Negro or colored. She was trapped in poverty by a cruel history and unrelenting prejudice that were invisible to me. Making her own soap was part of a household economy that depended as little as possible on money. She grew most of her own food, living through the cold months on what she had stowed in a root cellar or put up in jars. The cast-iron stove she cooked on also heated her cabin, burning wood my father supplied from a locust thicket he was thinning out year by year. Aside from lights, the only electrical device I recall was a radio. She owned no car, walking wherever she needed to go, or accepting a ride from my parents or church friends when they stopped by to see if she needed a lift into town.

I don’t mean to glamorize poverty. Mrs. Fox’s life was hard and made all the harder by racism. Without question, a reliable income, however modest, would have made her life easier and more secure. What I wish to emphasize is the wealth she did possess, the skills and practical intelligence that enabled her to meet most of her basic needs through her own efforts. Without relying on the cash economy, she could feed herself, make and mend her own clothes, entertain herself without burning gasoline or electricity and perform all but the heaviest jobs required to maintain her house. And for those jobs, neighbors such as my parents, seeing her need and admiring her grit, would lend a hand. Although poor in terms of money, Mrs. Fox was rich in friends and knowledge and skills; she was competent and to a high degree self-sufficient.

Sanders Spot Larry Moore
Illustrations by Larry Moore

My family was not poor, since my father earned a union wage at the tire plant, but we had no money to spare. My parents had come of age during the Great Depression, my father growing up on a red-dirt farm, my mother living in an apartment above a doctor’s office. The doctor was her father, a Middle Eastern immigrant who continued treating patients during the Depression even after they had lost their jobs and could no longer pay. Eventually he fell into debt and had to declare bankruptcy, losing everything he owned except his clothes and medical instruments. He never again put a dollar in the bank, where his creditors could seize it; instead, when his patients could afford to pay him once more, he kept his cash in the trunk of his car.

Because of her father’s bankruptcy, my mother was afraid of debt. To the day of her death at age 89, she worried about running out of money, despite my assurances. My father was also afraid of debt, because he knew farm families who’d lost their homes and land and livestock when banks foreclosed. Unable to find a job when he left school, he shagged rides across the country on freight trains, finding day labor here and there, eventually returning to Mississippi to work on a Civilian Conservation Corps tree-planting crew. Sobered by the Depression, my parents never ran up a tab at a store, never put a purchase on layaway. After paying off the mortgage on their first house, they never again borrowed money, buying every subsequent house and every car with cash. Although my father lived well into the golden age of credit cards, he never had one, nor did my mother, who outlived him by a quarter century.

What those spiritual traditions have in common is a recognition that Earth and its bounty and our very lives arise from a source we cannot fathom, a source creative and generous beyond measure.

My parents managed to live debt-free because, like Mrs. Fox, they possessed skills required for meeting basic needs. My mother could make and mend clothes, coax abundance out of gardens, prepare nourishing meals without opening a can or a box. She grew flowers that filled our house and yard with color and fragrance, doctored every sickness and injury in the family short of pneumonia and broken bones, scoured rummage sales for items useful or beautiful. When a garment wore out, she cut it up for rags and saved the buttons and zippers. Each year during our time in Ohio, my father bought a deer tag and filled the freezer with venison. He renovated the old house we lived in, and he could have built a new one, for he was handy at most of the building trades, including carpentry, masonry, plumbing and electrical wiring. He could repair every appliance and machine we owned. Whenever he dismantled a device, he saved useful parts in coffee cans, some of which, filled with random bolts and nuts and screws, I keep by my workbench for use in home repairs.

My parents had learned their frugal ways from their own parents. The only trips my mother ever took in childhood were for picnics in nearby state parks. Her father, our Assyrian grandfather, grew herbs on his windowsill in smoky Chicago to save the cost of buying them in the market. When the collar on one of his doctor shirts wore through, his wife would unstitch it, turn it over and sew it back on with the undamaged side showing. My Mississippi grandmother made dresses for her five daughters out of printed cotton fabric used for sacks of flour, seed and animal feed, a widespread practice in rural America from the 1920s through the 1950s. My Mississippi grandfather could not only repair every machine and implement on his farm, he could also make replacement parts in his shop. He pinched pennies. He liked telling a story about calling Sears, Roebuck to order toilet paper. “Of course,” said the clerk, “just pick out which kind you want from the catalog.” “If I had your catalog,” said my grandfather, “I wouldn’t need your toilet paper.”

Even if the story was apocryphal, it captured a frugal attitude that our parents passed down to my sister, my brother and me. While they taught us chiefly by example, they also conveyed the lesson in sayings that would be familiar to many Americans who grew up in the aftermath of the Depression and World War II: There’s nothing wrong with hand-me-downs. Do you think we’re made of money? Turn off the lights when you leave a room. Shut the door, we can’t heat the whole outdoors. Children are starving in China, so clean your plate. Don’t play with the dog in your good pants. Those shoes may feel too big now, but they’ll still fit you next year. A pair of jeans with patches is just as good as a new pair.

For my parents, as for Mrs. Fox, thrift was an economic practice, a way of making ends meet. But it was also a moral principle, which they had absorbed from prayers at family meals, sermons on Sundays and Bible classes. More than a hundred passages in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament speak about money, and not a single one counsels us to make the pursuit of material wealth the goal of life. Quite the contrary, the Scriptures consistently warn against greed and the piling up of possessions. In particular, the Christian gospels and the Hebrew prophets, including Jesus, caution the rich not to hoard money nor to spend lavishly on themselves, but to share their plenty with the poor.

These teachings were commonplace in the rural Methodist churches I attended in my youth, and they inform the worship services I attend as an adult. Had I grown up among Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Navajos, Hopis or any number of other enduring traditions, I could have learned the same lessons: Seek inner rather than outer riches. Share your excess with those in need. Be satisfied with enough, rather than forever craving more. What those spiritual traditions have in common is a recognition that Earth and its bounty and our very lives arise from a source we cannot fathom, a source creative and generous beyond measure, and that we should therefore be grateful, take no more from the world than we need, avoid waste, honor our fellow creatures and preserve the wellsprings of life.

It would be hard to imagine an economy more opposed to these teachings than the one that prevails in 21st-century America. Pervasive advertising entices us to want more than we need, to eat more than our bodies can use, to discard serviceable gadgets or clothing or cars for the newest models, to follow fashions, to travel great distances for fun. We are urged to see ourselves as consumers, as if we were vandals rather than stewards of sacred gifts. In many churches, the gospel of prosperity has replaced the gospel of simplicity, as if the good news proclaimed by Jesus was the promise of a bigger house, a fancier car and a swelling stock portfolio. The wealthiest among us hold many of the highest public offices, rule over the most powerful corporations and fill the media with their outsized egos. Meanwhile, in order to churn out a cornucopia of goods and services, the industrial economy ravages the planet, erases other species and imperils future generations.

As a measure of how far we have diverged from a culture of thrift, consider Mrs. Fox’s lye soap, which she used for bathing, laundry, dishwashing and floor-scrubbing. Now visit a supermarket and survey the products designed for those household tasks. In the store where my wife and I buy most of our groceries, the aisles filled with soaps, detergents, shampoos, bleaches and sundry other cleansers stretch for about 80 feet. With six shelves on either side of the aisle, that amounts to just under 1,000 linear feet of shelf space devoted to cleaning products. All to replace a bar of homemade soap that would fit in a child’s hand.

During the coronavirus epidemic, many Americans have rediscovered, or tried out for the first time, thrifty practices that were common before the rise of consumerism. With most restaurants, fast-food franchises and school lunchrooms closed, more people are cooking their meals at home. So many have taken up baking bread that stores across the country have run short of yeast and flour. Likewise, there has been a run on vegetable seeds, bedding plants and baby chicks, as people seek greater food security by planting gardens and raising poultry. Wary of crowding onto buses and subway cars, so many commuters are turning to bicycles that manufacturers cannot keep up with the demand. Wary of airplane travel and short of cash, Americans have been seeking recreation closer to home, streaming movies, playing music, reading books, camping in backyards, strolling in parks. As a result of the decrease in traffic, one can walk along city streets without choking on vehicle exhaust, and from downtown on cloudless nights one can see a startling profusion of stars.

The coronavirus is only the latest example of a potentially deadly pathogen transmitted to humans from other animals. The list of so-called zoonotic diseases includes rabies, anthrax, malaria, tuberculosis, swine flu, Ebola, dengue fever and bubonic plague. The deeper our settlements intrude into the habitats of other species, the more diseases we will contract, and the more we shuttle materials and passengers around the globe, the more swiftly those diseases will spread. So there are practical as well as moral reasons to curb our appetites.

How much of the shift toward more frugal ways will persist after the epidemic is over remains to be seen. At the very least, we have been given a taste of what a less wasteful economy might be like. We have been reminded that the plastic cards in our wallets will not guarantee our well-being, no matter the size of our bank balances. We have been shown the necessity as well as the pleasure of meeting some of our essential needs with our own hands. We need not go back to using only lye soap, but surely we could get by with fewer than a thousand feet of cleaning supplies. We could eat less meat, drive fewer miles, fly less often — or not at all. We could keep baking bread, keep sharing family meals, keep planting seeds.

Scott Russell Sanders is a distinguished professor emeritus of English at Indiana University and the author of more than 20 books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently The Way of Imagination: Essays (Counterpoint Press, 2020).