I remember the first time I saw him naked. It was kind of a shock, honestly. And mostly because I realized it was the first time I was seeing him naked. I know that sounds strange, but there was a moment when I deeply understood that you know your own babies so intimately and I did not know Fort that way. My three “birth” children were delivered into my hands at their tiniest, most vulnerable. I changed their diapers and washed their naked bodies from the first day I met them. I knew Fort for several days before I followed him into the bath. And we did not know each other well enough for me to bath him, let alone touch his naked body.
He had no modesty. He was either not old enough to have any sense of what that meant or he was not taught it, here in this place where all the children were in an assembly line to get bathed and in pajamas, and in front of many “aunties”. So he was not even aware of my watching him be naked. I had seen him use the bathroom, but as I saw his slim black body turn shiny in the clean water, I loved him a little deeper. The red dirt was everywhere on him, from the hours playing in the yard. It had gotten onto his feet through the seams of his sneakers or the crocs they all had. But you couldn’t see it on his dark skin until it touched the water and swirled away. The grey shade that came over him from dryness turned slick and glossy and he sat in the nearly empty tub. He sat there, a black boy in that white tub, with a pink bucket of water next to him. He bathed all by himself, this little three year old who was one of the oldest in the bunch. With efficiency, he splashed himself with water and used a sponge to wet his head. Taking the white bar of soap between his hands, he scrubbed himself clean, including his hair which was cut close to the scalp. There was no playing, no soothing warm water, not really any interaction at all. If the kids did not bathe themselves quickly or properly, the aunties did it, and it was not done with any tender nurturing, but rather with the same attitude as scrubbing a potato. Fort seemed rather happy to do it himself, and did not require any help, so I just watched.
I saw for the first time the shape of his body. I couldn't help but compare the differences from my skin and my shape, and the curves of my birth children. His back seemed strong and muscular, tapering from strong shoulders into a trim little waist. His bottom curved out in places ours didn't. I knew his hands and feet well, the wide frames of both giving him a sense of solidness. I wondered about the places that didn't have answers, the scars and marks of his body that I wasn't there to witness. He had the firm pouch of a belly the way most toddlers do, and I was happy to see he was not emaciated in any way. He may be hungry during the day, but he was getting nutrition. An immunization scar marked his left upper arm . I wonder why his immunization scarred him when my other children were left unmarked. Was it the medicine or the needle, or was Fort’s skin just so different?
After rinsing off the suds, he clambered out of the tub to let the next child in. He grabbed his towel and vigorously dried himself, rubbing his legs up and down. The boys and girls were sent in one at a time, and then came back into the main room to dress for bed. First the kids rubbed oil all over their skin, with a local olive oil that was very cheap and did the trick. After the oil, their skin was beautiful and their little faces seemed aglow. The children’s pajamas were stacked on the table by size. The babies had already been bathed and put into their pajamas. All clothing had been washed, line dried and then ironed, to kill any eggs that had been deposited by the Putzi fly while drying. The children wore whatever pajamas were the proper size, and the 3 oldest boys – Fort, Jose, and James- loved their new matching pajamas. They wore their two-piece princess pjs proudly. They did not wear any underwear to bed, which was a habit that was difficult for Fort to change once he came home with us.
I helped him once or twice with his bath at the orphanage, but as always I wanted to leave his routine as status quo as possible. I had to get a ride back to my house when it was available, or take a motorcycle taxi home before it was dark. Many times I was already gone by bathtime. After we flew home to Ohio, I sat with him by the bath. It was a different bath. First, there was water IN the bath and he sat in it! Sometimes the kids took baths together, with bubbles or toys. He learned how to blow bubbles in the water and soon put his head underwater just like his brother and sisters. I sat and could remember washing the tiny bodies of my babies. Holding them so their floppy heads stayed out of the water, and their little legs splashing us with little uncontrolled kicks. I shushed them when they cried because they didn’t want to get wet or sometimes because they didn’t want to get dry. That tender maternal feeling covered me, as I watched the calm on their faces from the warm water or the reflexive flinching when I tickled them while washing their feet and legs.
And here was this boy. This sweet boy whom I loved but who was still somewhat of a stranger to me. And I sat by him in the bath, and helped him when he didn’t need it. I helped him wash his back, softly and slowly. I poured water over the roundness of his belly so he could feel the delight of that sensation. I made a big deal when he went underwater and came up with those wide shining surprised eyes. I learned how the water drips off him in waves, as if it was a blanket moving down his face. I held his arms out and used my hands to rub soap around his shoulders, under his armpit. I learned the softness of his skin, the corners of his body. I started to help him with the oil after the bath. The oil made his body glow, his hair that was growing up in little twists soften and his skin slip under my touch.
Every time I washed and oiled him, I felt a little closer, a little more maternal. I was his mom, maybe the only one who ever washed him and cared for him like this. I got to know his body, and he became a little more mine.