The Art of Jean Groberg

"Life is a great big canvas and you should throw all the paint on it you can."

 Danny Kaye   

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Elizas Cellar Door - For Sale
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Eliza had impaled a group of chipped enameled metal milk jugs on the claw-like branches of a dead bush. I was working on a painting of this intriguing setup when she called from her basement. She wanted to show me how she made soap. The yard was sloped so this room was at ground level in the area beneath her kitchen.

I dropped my brush in paint thinner and went into the cellar, careful not to trip on that long redwood stick used to prop up the kitchen window sill. Who knows, the whole house might have been held up by that single prop and I certainly didn't want to be the one that toppled things. The basement door was a future painting all by itself. Eliza didn't have a regular door there, but instead there was a width of green and yellow striped awning canvas nailed over the doorway. What had once been a bottom hem was a tattered fray of fabric and what wasn't rotted had been scratched away by the many wild cats that people dumped in that area. A vine had grown through the broken pane of a small window and draped itself along the inner wall.

This little room was quite orderly. She had an electric round agitator washing machine, very probably a replacement for the old relic washing machine with the corrugated copper exterior that was holding flower pots out in the garden.

Eliza was a careful soap maker, as one should be when dealing with lye. She held a dishtowel to her nose as she stirred the fat and lye together. She also added a little bleach. I had seen my Mom make soap many times so the process wasn't new to me. Mom poured the thickened soap liquid into a big cardboard box and would later cut the soap into squares, like fudge. Eliza poured her mixed soap into waxed quart-sized cardboard milk containers. When the soap hardened after a couple days, she slid the soap block from the milk container, etched the date into the waxy surface with a nail and wrapped each soap block with wax paper. The finished soap was stacked on a shelf, like bricks, for further curing.

A short flight of wooden steps led up to a ceiling trapdoor. This permitted access to and from the kitchen area. One day she came down those steps to find a strange man in her basement noisily whistling and going through some of her storage boxes. When she asked him just what he thought he was doing, he was startled and embarrassed. He apologized and said he thought that no one lived in the house and that it had been abandoned. She was plenty offended by this fellow's invasion of her space. To a person walking by on that narrow road, the house did look derelict, but the man was wrong to enter the shabby property.

I still make soap using Eliza's recipe but I pour mine in shoe boxes before cutting. I use it for special cleaning jobs. My Mother would be aghast if she saw me go down and actually BUY lard for this purpose instead of saving fat from cooking. Today's low-fat, diets produce very little left-over fat for soap making.

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