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Bathing

Grandma was short and compact as a fire hydrant, with gray wavy hair swept straight back from her face, held with tortoise-shell combs. Her eyelids drooped as if weighted, and her eyes looked out from deep pouches. But they were kind eyes, mild and patient. Her cheeks were crosshatched with wrinkles. The pores on her nose were large; from each side of her nose to the bottom of her chin ran a furrow, like a seam that stitched a pillowy jowl into the soft flesh of her face. Her neck spilled onto her bosom, which sat on her chest like a shelf. She walked with her elbows close to her body. Her short legs were the same width ankle-to-knee, and her square chunky shoes tilted her slightly forward. With her arms tucked at her sides and her high bosom out front, she looked like a proud, dignified little hen. Her name was Anna.

I grew up visiting Grandma every Sunday with my family. Nothing was expected of me but to say hello, and eat whatever was put before me, and play with my sister and brother in the other room while the adults talked. Later, when I was a teenager, my parents sometimes left Grandma to look after us if they went away for a weekend. I would come from school and Grandma would be on the couch, sitting with her hands crossed serenely in her lap, waiting to be asked for something I might need. But there was nothing I needed that Grandma could provide; I barely ate, my clothes were studiously unironed, my room could have used tidying but I was in the middle of a hard fight to allow no one in there but myself. So Grandma sat patiently, with not much to do. She read Yiddish but not English, and watched only one TV program — the Evening News with Jim Jensen. With my own head filled with a constant and urgent low roar of politics, morality, general outrage and romantic possibilities, I could not think of even one word to say to Grandma. She might have been a piece of furniture.

Once I had my son Jeremy, things changed. When my friends were busy and the long day of hours with a baby grew too tedious, we went visit Grandma. She would take Jeremy from my arms and bunk her forehead to his, reciting a Yiddish rhyme that made them both laugh; “More again!” he would demand, and she would happily start over. She would feed us lunch at the oilclothcovered kitchen table: sour cream and sliced bananas, egg cookies she baked herself and kept especially for me and Jeremy in a jar on top of the fridge. We would visit with the row of women in beach chairs in front of the apartment building, who exclaimed loudly over Jeremy’s genius as he obligingly blew kisses and waved bye-byes, while Grandma visibly expanded with pride. Then I would drive Grandma to Waldbaum’s supermarket, and let her take her time as she picked over the vegetables and fruits, and clucked her disapproval at the rising prices and diminishing quality of every single item.

Grandma was 86 when they moved her out of her apartment. She couldn’t walk the stairs; my mother and aunt were afraid of gas burners and faucets left running, spoiling food, falls in the bathtub. She eventually got used to the old age home — the “senior residence” — though she missed her pots and pans and houseplants, her sewing box and her neighbors of thirty years. At first she complained: there were too many old people in the home; no salt was allowed for the flavorless food. But the complaints faded as she became good friends with her roommate, Mrs. Reitman. They told stories and sang old Yiddish songs. They went to meals together, put each other to bed and woke each other up. Mrs. Reitman was losing her memory, but they never spoke of it. Grandma made sure to steer Mrs. Reitman by her elbow when they walked together; and buttoned her into her sweater so she would not leave it behind. And no matter how many times a day they saw one another, even if only a minute had passed, Grandma would say, “Hello, Mrs. Reitman, it’s your roommate, Anna Gallant,” to spare her the embarrassment of not knowing who she was.

Grandma held her own until Mrs. Reitman died. No new roommate came. My mother and aunt were once again worried; the residence was for self-reliant people only, as determined by affirmative responses to some very specific questions: “Can you walk unaided? Feed yourself? Dress yourself?” Grandma was fine till the last question: “Can you bathe yourself?” Grandma could no longer get in and out of the bathtub, and her room had no shower stall. Her daughters decided that Grandma could get by with sponge baths at the sink; and she tried. Grandma had battled dirt all her life. Through many hard times and years of poverty she had chased cockroaches, scraped potatoes, laundered clothing, scrubbed floors, washed windows. Being clean mattered to her. But there wasn’t much she could do with just a washcloth. Her hair grew dull. The odor of urine hung about her, along with the smell of the stale talcum powder meant to neutralize it. When she stiffened, embarrassed, as I leaned to kiss her cheek, I made a decision.

“Grandma. Let’s give you a bath.” I’m pretty sure the last person to see Grandma naked before that day was Grandpa, who died in 1949. Or it may be that no one had ever seen her naked. But there in the small bathroom, Grandma slowly pulled the combs from her hair. With her back to me she unbuttoned her blouse. I helped her slide the polyester pants down over her hips. She sat on the closed toilet seat as I untied her square black shoes and rolled down her elastic stockings. As she stood in her yellowed cotton brassiere and nylon bloomers, I ran the water and let the tub fill. She handed me a plastic jar of bath beads that must have been a decade old. I was doubtful, but when I dropped a lavender ball into the bathwater a layer of bubbles began boiling to the surface. Again Grandma turned her back to me. I unhooked her brassiere and she slipped it from her shoulders, covering her breasts with crossed arms.

At her bloomers, I almost gave up. I could not think of a way to tug down the raggedy elastic waistband of those underpants without trampling on a lifetime of propriety and deference. Front or back, any way she turned, Grandma would be utterly exposed.

Grandma faced me. She leaned heavily on my shoulder with her left hand; with her right she pulled at one side and then the other of the waistband, until the panties were at her knees. With her hand still on my shoulder, I knelt and pulled them all the way down, then steadied her as she stepped out of them. I stood and looked at my grandmother Anna. All the parts of her body that had been exposed to weather, wind and sun — the face I had known all my life, the arms, legs, chest, hands and feet — were browned and wrinkled, marked with rough patches and dozens of age spots. But from her breasts to her bottom, her skin was milky white and smooth as marble.

Grandma grabbed the bar at the side of the tub, and together we lowered her into the steaming, fragrant water. Her eyes were closed; for a minute she just sat, rippling the water with her fingertips. Then I soaped a washcloth and scrubbed her back; she soaped her arms and breasts and plunged the washcloth under the layer of bubbles, letting out a sly chuckle as she washed her “privates.” I lathered the back of her neck; shampooed her hair, rinsed and shampooed it again. As I massaged her scalp she let out little sighs of pleasure, in rhythm with the motion of my fingers. It occurred to me that no one had really touched Grandma in years and years and years; no more than a quick hug hello, a peck on the cheek good-bye. For nine months or so I bathed Grandma every other week. I grew less tentative; we developed a routine, and I brought her a bathrobe, and special soaps and lotions. But, there came a time when Grandma could not dress or feed herself, and had to move again. I still visited her, but there was less and less of her in the person I went to see. The harried aides had no time to take her to the bathroom; she was kept in diapers. She ate on their schedule and sat in her wheelchair till someone could bring her back to her room. Many times I would enter the day room on a visit and her face would brighten.

“Ruthie!” she would happily cry out; and I would sidestep my hurt that she mistook me for her long dead niece, and be glad that at least Ruthie’s visit had cheered her up.

One day I sat with Grandma as she nodded in the lounge. Her gray hair was frizzled and unkempt; her chin rested on her chest. “Grandma,” I said, more to myself than to her, “Grandma, remember when I used to give you a bath?”

She stirred and lifted her head, and I saw that she recognized me. She gripped the armrests of her wheelchair and pulled herself up till she was sitting almost erect. She looked straight at me. “You gave me a bath?” she said, indignant. Placing a finger in the center of my chest, she poked me once, hard. “I gave you a bath.”

Alice Shechter was the director of Camp Kinderland for 25 years, and now works part time in their New York office. She lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.