AFTER WHAT FELT LIKE HOURS with gauze in my mouth and wet cheeks, I heard a knock on my bedroom door. Through the gauze, I mumbled, “Mmmmmm in.” It was Grandma Jane, my father’s mother, the grandma who lived in town, the one I adored. She opened the door, walked over to the bed, and held me with her deep brown eyes.
“Let’s get you into the bath,” she said as she took my hand in hers.
My father’s parents lived thirty minutes away in the city. My mother must have called her. Grandma Jane had learned to drive late in her life. She rarely drove at night, which was why I was surprised to see her. She rarely visited us in the evening and certainly never alone. But that night she jumped into her white Volkswagen Beetle and drove to our house. I didn’t hear the doorbell ring, so she must have let herself into the house with her key.
I was so happy to see her. At just under five feet tall, Grandma Jane was our family’s tiny but mighty nurturing heart. She was adoring. Birthday-smothering. A devoted letter-writer whose notes to all of her grandchildren at camp, and even at college, frequently included a ten-dollar bill. She remembered that I liked onions on my hamburgers, not mixed in. That I liked my Coca-Cola with ginger ale. That I loved chopped chicken liver with Triscuits or Wheat Thins.
Unlike my mother’s mother, Grandma Jane embraced being Jewish. She was active in her synagogue’s sisterhood, regularly went to High Holy Day services, and had a personal relationship with her rabbi. Hers was the house we gathered in for Passover and Rosh Hashanah.
Grandma Jane led me to the bathroom, where she filled the white porcelain tub with bubble bath up to the rim. She let it run a long time; I had never seen the tub that full. She turned her back while I slid in, and when I turned around to look at her, I saw her kneel on the cold tile floor, fold her skirt under her knees, and run her small fingers through her jet-black hair with the swath of gray in front. I wondered where my mother was, baffled as to why she didn’t come to say hello. But with my grandmother there, sitting quietly with me, I was, finally, able to breathe. I was feeling more settled, the calmest I had felt since the accident. She looked back at me with concern, smiling at me with her eyes. We sat there together quietly while she lightly stroked my back, wordlessly, for the longest and most luxurious bath I’d ever had.
After my finger and toe pads were wrinkled, she dried me off with a warm towel, turned the other way as I got into my night- gown, and then escorted me back to my room. She grabbed another pillow from the hall closet, set it on my bed, and waited until I found a comfortable position. Then she slipped back into the night.
Much later I would discover that my grandmother had cared for me in a way that closely approximated bikur cholim, the Jewish etiquette for caring for people who are sick or injured. The guidelines include everything from the length of time for a visit, the time of day, one’s body posture to what one wears.
For example, the Talmud states that one should visit during the last three hours of the day when the pain is strongest. My grandmother arrived late in the evening.
The Talmud says that the one who enters to visit the sick should not sit on a bed, nor a bench, nor a chair but should enrobe himself and sit on the ground for the Divine Presence rests above the bed of the patient. Grandma Jane sat on the cold tile bathroom floor at my back and did not hover.
Position oneself at the same level as the sick person, says the Talmud, as it is an indication of empathy.
It tells the loved one to dress as if he or she is going to syna- gogue. Grandma was wearing a dress.
Remain quiet, the Talmud admonishes, as silence is an act of kindness for those who are sick. She didn’t say a word. She just stroked my back and listened to me breathe.
And the Talmud states that a visitor should not overstay. After the bath, she toweled me dry, returned me to my bed, and headed home.
My grandmother’s instinct to come to my side in the night by herself was her nature. But showing up and knowing what to do are different things. She must have known that she’d be needed, that perhaps I wouldn’t be getting what I needed that dark night of my twelve-year-old soul.
She had a Jewish soul. A Jewishly soaked heart. I didn’t know it then, but that bath and my grandmother’s quiet presence that night constitute the sense memory I carry of what Judaism, and love, look like.
Ellen Blum Barish is an essayist and memoirist who teaches and coaches writing. You can read more at ellenblumbarish.com. Ellen’s memoir, Seven Springs, was published by Shanti Arts Publishing in 2021.