Since the pandemic hit, my sister, Molly Appledorn, can’t stop making soap. Or talking about it.
We’re on her back deck, six feet apart, sipping strawberry jalapeño margaritas.
This soap thing rocks! she says. And she’s rocked quite a few soaps, from Sassy Citrus to Date Night to Grandma’s Lemon Bars, turning out loaf after beautiful loaf.
To make her soaps, Molly buys refined shea butter, rice bran oil, essential oils and pounds of sodium hydroxide, all delivered safely through the mail. She obtains avocado, castor and hemp oils from Sawall Health Foods. For some batches, she snatches eggs, still warm from her hens, and adds them in. Into others, she drizzles milk from coconuts or goats.
Three months into the pandemic, she placed a custom order with some guy named Jeremy for a soap cutter made from solid cherry. She drove 76 miles, from Kalamazoo to Sand Lake, to pick it up. She now slices Strawberry and Lemon Poppy Seed loaves with ease. With wild abandon she gives away Cucumber Melon and Sexy Beast Mowing the Lawn. She drives across town delivering soap to relatives, former co-workers, soccer moms and book-club friends she sees now only on Zoom. To the Amazon delivery person she gives Sideways Smile Sandalwood. The other day she slipped some fresh slabs to the masked salesladies at J. Jill. She’s hauled an assortment to the grocery store and let these essential workers choose the bars that spoke to them. Even before these recipients use the soap, I imagine they feel, like me, already lathered in her love.
Mol, that was so cool how you wove that twine around that almond soap you gave me. You should do that with all your soaps.
I don’t want to get distracted by packaging. It’s what’s inside that matters. Molly goes on about the essential oils she wants to infuse into her next batch. She talks so fast I can’t follow. Instead, I marvel how the sun has found its way through the trees and is kissing her face. She shines.
In times of fear and anxiety, some people flounder while others, like my sister, unfold and open themselves anew. She’s now your gal for sunburn, poison ivy, eczema, psoriasis. In this age of uncertainty, in which the world’s economy has shrunk along with our lives, Molly offers plenty of options. Need a vacation? She’ll gift you one. Little vacation soaps, she calls them. Made with chamomile and honey. Scrub the tiny rosebud over your body. Breathe deeply. For a more rustic getaway, try her Pine Tar, a bar that smells like a smoky, closed-up cabin.
Itching to host a big party with guests close and touching, shoulders bumping? Slather yourself in Confetti. Missing the bar scene? Suds up with some Coconut Porter. If you’re craving something more spiritual and happen to be walking down a street in Kalamazoo, Amazing Grace, humming with lemon and jasmine, may arrive to you unbidden and unmerited.
In response to her soap gifts, Molly has received face masks, a four-pack of Founders ale, blueberry buckle, wines, peach jam, sour-cherry jam, tart-cherry jam, an infinity scarf, chocolate chip cookies, hand-knitted soap savers, homemade Bloody Mary mix and sourdough bread.
You need to sell your soaps, I say, sipping my margarita. Put up a website. Start making some money. And you’re going to have to change some of the soap names. Mouse Poop Lavender isn’t enticing. Who wants to rub that on —
— It smells delish!
And Big Ass Orange Addict —
— People love that one!she says, laughing. It’s got notes of tobacco and vanilla. Half the fun is coming up with the names, so I’m not changing them. Anyways, I can’t sell my soap. It would suck the joy right out of it.
I ask what else she’s gotten lately.
Gratitude and love, she says. That’s all I need.
Fueled by an economy of kindness, she labors deep into the heat of summer. During these extraordinarily unordinary times, her desperately ordinary work brings joy to both giver and receiver.
In this time when we physically distance and avoid touching even our own faces, Molly has figured out how to embrace weary spirits residing inside flesh. Each nourishing soap, whether bartered or given away, restores hope and serves as a reminder that, beneath the grime of despair, we are part of the slathery goodness thrumming wildly in this world.
Not a day slips by that Molly isn’t texting photos of her latest creation, each loaf a canvas of comfort waiting to be shared. I hope these soap interruptions are welcome diversions for our brother, John. As an infectious disease doctor and hospital epidemiologist, he is extremely busy these days.
Forty-six batches of soap later, our brother texts back: Dear Tiny Baby Jesus — Please allow me to have at least 1/10th the joy that soap making gives Molly in all that I do each day. Amen.
Note: The title of this piece was inspired by the following quote from Proctor & Gamble, makers of Ivory soap (which made its debut in 1879): “Soap is a desperately ordinary substance to us.”