My grandmother pulls off her nightgown; bends at the hips; slips each sock off one by one with her other foot, her toes pinching and pulling the black socks with surprising ease; and then she is naked. She is old—we celebrated her ninety-seventh birthday two weeks ago, June 2020—but her body surprises me. It’s shockingly agile, limber. The contours of her waist, the curve of her legs still visible. I have never seen her so exposed. I can imagine her as a young woman, almost the same shape and figure. She has not lost so much with age.
First, she sits to pee in front of me—I giggle and feel grateful for my homemade mask—and then we move into the shower. She perches on the ledge as if to dangle her legs in pools of running water—I remember dangling my legs off the bulkhead at swim practice and wonder if these are the actions of an old woman or a young girl. Wonder if it matters. I take the shower head to her hair and let the spray wash her. She showers once a week, and for the next six weeks—approximately four months into our new pandemic normal—I will be the one to bathe her. Her seniors’ program has been closed for months now, and it’s time for a plan. My aunt is tired of bathing her, and it looks like this won’t be over any time soon. Though we have hope for the fall, we hope we are wrong.
I have a hard time crying, but sometimes, if I’m lucky, a hot shower will release something in me—open my pores, literally and metaphorically. When I can’t cry, I go to the shower. I let the water run down my body as if the water was my sadness, as if the water could release it, as if I could scorch any sad out of me with scalding heat. Water brings me back to myself in the kindest way possible. Sometimes I will sit curled in a ball on a porcelain tub and let the water stream over my skin until my skin is water, I am water—until everything dissolves.
For a long time, I was afraid of touch—how to touch, who to touch, how to be touched. When my girlfriend and I first started dating, I spent a lot of time being nervous. When we first kissed, I told her it had been so long since I had kissed anyone—What if I had forgotten how? It’s never felt easy for me. Never straightforward. Coming out as queer was scary—the kinds of touch I wanted were scary. Being seen in my desire and for my desire was terrifying.
On days when skin feels too fraught, my body a tangled landscape I don’t want to tame, I lead my girlfriend to the shower where together we will dissolve into water, and into each other without fear—my fear. In the shower with my girlfriend, I learn what it means to care for someone—to soap her back, massage conditioner into her buzzed hair, and to trust someone to care for me. Now over two years into our relationship, touch is no longer frightening. But it’s not always easy either. I am still learning to ask for physical comfort. But water is intuitive. Water is soft. The shower is a portal back into myself.
When Grandma’s hair is soaked and I can see her pink scalp shining below silver, I squirt Burt’s Bees shampoo into my palms, rub them together, and slowly, gently, I massage her head. I bring my fingers to her hairline and I radiate outwards; I soap her forehead, crown, the gentle slope of her neck, her shoulders. I smooth the fine tangle of white hair out of her eyes. I press my palms just above her ears with a gentle pressure I know she can feel. Mmmm, she says. I wonder when she was last touched. I rinse the shampoo, then I wrap a bar of soap in a washcloth and rub her back up and down in long strokes until I feel her soften. This is my favorite part. I know she likes it best, too. Sometimes at the end of a shower, I’ll ask if she wants her back washed again, she will nod, and I will bring the washcloth to her body and I will scrub. Next I soap her arms, elbows, armpits, thighs, and calves. Grandma says I have strong hands. I ask if I am hurting her; she says, No, it’s nice. I wait while she cleans her vagina and bum with a vigor and excess of soap that always surprises me. Crouching on the shower floor, I cradle her feet in the washcloth and slough the dead skin off her heels. Finally, I insert the washcloth between each toe as if I’m flossing teeth. If I forget to do this, Grandma reminds me. It’s important that her toes be clean.
She pulls herself out of the shower and plops onto the toilet seat. Her bum pools around her—soft—as if to protect her bones, and I dry her body with a towel. She asks me to dry in between her toes and once again, I floss each foot. Finally, I rub lotion on her legs, arms, feet, and toes, feeling the skin move beneath my hands as I rub the lotion in. After she de-hairs her vintage bristle brush and washes it with soap in the sink, beating it against the hand towel to dry it, I detangle her white hair, but she likes to do the part herself—an extreme side part that would look very hip on a young person—so I let her. With her short hair razored into a blunt bob she looks almost like a schoolgirl. Except old, of course.
Sometimes while I brush her hair I will sneak glances at her in the mirror, but it’s so solemn that usually I look away. Watching Grandma in the mirror feels like a poignant movie scene about aging, about a twenty-something and her grandmother, about death—it’s too raw. Instead, I look at myself—admire the way my wavy-curly hair has grown frizzy and voluminous in the shower’s humidity. How I look strong in my tank top and shorts—an outfit that will dry quickly if Grandma is a little bit enthusiastic with the shower head, waving it around frenetically—my broad shoulders that my girlfriend loves.
Dry, Grandma darts naked from the bathroom to the bedroom where her clean clothes are laid out, past the living room where my parents, her son, sit—I hope no one is looking, she says, but does it anyways. Later, Dad asks why his mother streaked by butt naked? I wonder how I am meant to stop her from falling, if she really needs me to stop her from falling. In the bedroom, I help her pull on her bra, underwear, undershirt, pants, and striped linen blouse with buttons.
Grandma likes her bra tightened to the smallest notch. I slide the bra straps over her shoulders and close the band from behind. Then she picks up each breast, “the girls,” and tucks them into the white lacy fabric. Her undershirt gets tucked into her underwear. Her pants are sometimes held closed with a safety pin—which she likes to fasten while I hold my breath hoping she doesn’t accidentally stab herself. Occasionally I pull out a pair of socks from the dresser with a big hole in the heel and she won’t let me throw them away. This means that eventually I will pull out this exact same pair of socks again—she will have totally forgotten about the hole. I will sneak them into the garbage without Grandma noticing. At this point, Grandma is usually exhausted and needs to sit for breaks between tasks. Often her breathing is heavy, wheezes.
I guide her to the beige reclining chair that faces the television that runs at all hours, ghosts and politicians keeping her company from daylight to sunset, and she sits, worn out. I untie my mask’s purple ribbons, carefully place it in a plastic bag to deal with later, annoyed by the smirk of lipstick left behind. Why did I wear lipstick? I will have to wash it. I guess I should anyway. I ask if I did okay, if there’s anything she wants done differently. She says, Bless you, and, Thank the lord. I giggle in reply. I ask if she wants me to spend more time next week? Surprised we only took fifteen minutes. Happy to stay longer. To massage her hair and back longer. Mustn’t she be so lonely? I didn’t expect to enjoy bathing my grandma. I didn’t expect to feel closer to her than ever before. That amidst pandemic anxiety and ennui, this would be the only time I’ve felt capable, confident, good—in my body. She says No, it was good, bless you. I offer again. Bless you.
My grandma grew up on a farm with ten siblings and an eleventh that died at birth—she was the oldest and left school after eighth grade to help on the farm, help raise the other children. Her father had a temper. She tells me her mother had a hard life. Men are better now. She lived through the Great Depression, the Second World War, and now this pandemic. Sometimes she says it’s her time to go. Should be gone already. She believes in Jesus and is suspicious of my Jewish, Israeli mother with her wild curls and her Chanukah gelt. But Grandma thinks I’m beautiful. Your hair is the perfect texture, just the right amount of curl, she says looking pointedly at my mom. Just curly enough. As if there is a too much. If she could will my mom’s wild Jewish hair straight with the power of Christ and some good Protestant work effort, I’m sure she would. If she could will my sexuality straight with the power of Christ and a bible, I’m sure she would do that, too.
Mid-June 2020: it has been nearly three weeks since my girlfriend moved out of my parents’ house, nearly three weeks since I have been touched. The pandemic has quieted on our island—we haven’t seen a new case for at least two weeks, and I have started to live here in my body on Vancouver Island, and not in New York, LA, Israel, Brazil, the places I read about in the news. I tell myself it is okay to be happy; it is okay to have pleasure. There is no point in suffering just because others are suffering. Yet, I feel guilty. But it is nice to feel safe. Somewhat safe.
Still, I am grieving. I don’t mean to be melodramatic. I swear, it feels like grief—to go from eight months of long-distance dating while I worked for a publishing house on BC’s Sunshine Coast, with a one-month interlude of living together—before which my girlfriend isolated from her family for two weeks—only to be in the same city as my partner but unable to see her, touch her, hold her. We have vulnerable people in our lives and cannot fathom bringing sickness to anyone we love, so we stay apart. It is what it is.
Everyone is doing it. Making sacrifices. Once a week, we see each other two meters apart. Three out of four times it has been awkward, frustrating, challenging. Often, one of us cries. Often, one of us is mad, moody, disgruntled. Usually, I’m the mad one. The moody one. It’s not easy for me to be sad—sad feels so vulnerable. M is reliable, pleasant, patient. If she is sad it is soft; she wants to be comforted. I am the irritable one. I turn spiky, prickly. Sharp. Like a cactus.
On the phone I tell M about washing my grandma for the first time. How nice it was to touch someone. To do something with my hands. How grounding it felt. How I would have stayed longer. Isn’t it hard to be alone all the time? Isn’t she so lonely? I wanted to give her the safety and pleasure of being held, like my mom gave me as a child, like I hope Grandma gave my Dad, I tell M. I don’t say how I wish someone would hold me right now. I don’t say how I wish you were here right now. I don’t say how lonely I am without you.
M tells me she loves me almost constantly. She believes in us. I’m going to be around for a long time, she says. M tells me she misses me. But sometimes I struggle to take in all of M’s love. It’s so soft, so vulnerable—I want to curl away from it, into some shell that doesn’t require me to feel. I like to joke that I am textbook anxious-avoidant, but it’s probably true. Feeling means feeling everything and feeling everything is frightening. But M tells me she loves me—and most days I believe it.
On my grandma’s ninety-seventh birthday, my mom asked what wisdom Grandma had for us. Grandma said, You should live a clean life. I winced. I hate the word “clean.” It’s antiseptic, scrubbed raw; it makes me think of sin and guilt and a God I don’t believe in. It makes me think I’m unclean—that Grandma would think I’m unclean if she knew. Mom replied, What does that mean? Grandma said it means many things—but won’t tell us a single one. I am suspicious she won’t elaborate because she knows we would disagree with her definition. Later we bring out cake and totally forget to remove the candles. Grandma blew and blew but the candles merely flickered as if teasing, taunting, Nah nah nah nahhhh, you can’t get me! My aunt joined in and together they extinguished all the little lights. Gotcha. In the car afterward I said, We just ate cake full of sneeze. My parents laughed, shook their heads, embarrassed. We didn’t even think of that! So much for social distancing. How do our bodies learn to live in a pandemic?
Grandma has met M multiple times, exclaiming, You’re so tall! How tall are you? My, oh my, so tall. And a pilot? An engineer? There can’t be many women that do that. Good for you. My oh my. Bless you. She seems to like her, or at least that’s how I’ve always interpreted her My oh mys. But who can be sure. We’ve always introduced M as a friend. Though mostly I evade introductions. List facts instead. M is an engineer. M is a pilot. M is tall. M has a buzzcut. M has blue eyes and beautiful cheekbones. M likes to cuddle. M is good at sex. M isn’t not my friend. M isn’t not my girlfriend. Of course, I don’t say these things.
Last year at Thanksgiving after M and I had gone to my room, to bed, Dad caught Grandma sneaking down the hallway to say goodnight a final time. Or so she said. Sneaky. What would have happened? None of us are sure. Grandma the imp. Grandma the detective. What would she have seen? Did she know? Does she know? Most of me wants to tell her. But, some—or rather, a lot—of me is afraid. Another part of me wonders why it even matters. My grandma knows so little about my life—I’m not sure she would even understand my life, never having touched a computer or a cellphone—why should she know this one thing? Yet this one thing is pretty damn important. This one thing matters.
Here is a list of things Grandma has asked me about my life: Do you get paid for your job? What do you do? Does the girl you live with drive your car? Where does your roommate’s family live? Does that girl you live with help you cook? How many bedrooms does your apartment have? How many beds? Where do you sleep? Where does the girl sleep? When showing her a picture of a sweater I am planning to knit modeled by the designer—Is that your boyfriend? Is there a grocery store near you? What does your roommate do? Did you get your money for bathing me? Did Dad pay you? Do you want a check? Did you get your money? Does your brother have a girlfriend? She’s never directly asked if I have a boyfriend. It feels like a question she avoids, but that may be my anxiety speaking. Grandma’s questioning isn’t frequent or long, it’s not a line of fire—the queries sneak up on you, surprise you. I’m never sure if they’re premeditated, things she has wondered for a long time, evidence of suspicions and theories, or if they’re conversational, if that just happens to be what she’s thinking at the time. I am often unsure how exactly to read my grandmother. Once accidentally, we watched a small part of Ru Paul’s Drag Race on her television and she thought it was hilarious, the padded butts and wigs and all—body humor really does it for her—but I wasn’t sure if she realized that for the most part, the contenders are men. I don’t know what she would have thought if she had realized they were men performing as women. I don’t know what she sees, how she sees the world. I know that she can be racist, fat-phobic, and all the other things old White Christian people often are. But I don’t know what she sees. I guess what I’m really saying is that I don’t know how she would see me if she actually knew me—all of me.
I thought this was a funny story. I thought this would be a funny story. Something about how we all get old and then our bodies look strange. Something about how my grandma believes in God, while I don’t. Something about how she says, Shake, rattle, and roll, to describe her bones, her shakiness, her unsure feet. Something about how I’ve never been close with my grandma and now I’m very intimate with her.
Something about how some weeks, I take a shower with my grandma, when she waves the shower head a little too vigorously. Something about how I’ve even clipped her toenails—deformed by fungus and old age—with what looked like a medieval torture device. How she squealed and I almost fainted. How the next time I was so nervous using the torture-device nail clippers, I opted to file for a really, really long time instead.
Something about how I can’t even hold my girlfriend’s hand—though once, shoes off, sprawled in her backyard, we touched toes and almost started crying—and now I’m wiping my grandma’s bum dry. How I’m twenty-three, unemployed, and washing my grandma as a part time job. How the family agreed, before they asked me, that I’d be paid forty dollars an hour, but Grandma always forgets and says twenty-five. And then I feel bad. Something about how sometimes my grandma farts.
Turns out it’s not a funny story. Or, it’s not all that. The story is that I have to look away when my grandma brushes her hair in the mirror because it’s too vulnerable to watch her looking at herself. Looking at her wrinkled face and white hair—to think that one day that will be me. It’s too vulnerable to wonder what she sees. If it makes her sad. The story is that I leave my grandma’s quiet residential street in Sidney, BC, feeling centered and grounded. Feeling like I’ve done something that matters. The story is that I like sitting with her post bath and knitting while she scrolls through channels on the television. The story is that this was meant to be a temporary summer job—only six weeks—but as the pandemic continues, so do I. The story is that I have now moved out of my parents’ house and in with my partner, it is spring and the light returns, I have a good job, and still I visit my grandma once a week to bathe her, but now with two masks that never leave my face and lots of hand sanitizer. How Grandma always tells me to take off my masks, but I reply, Not until you’re vaccinated! And now after her first vaccination, Only after the second jab.
The story is vulnerable. The story is raw. The story is that I love bathing my grandma. Even if sometimes she is mean to my mom—telling her to cut her hair, implying it’s too messy, as my mom’s beautiful curls toy and flirt with her shoulders. Even if, the other day my grandma asked about M’s husband, where he lives if she lives with me? I laughed, said Grandma, but we’re too young for husbands!
I laughed, but I hate lying to my grandma—and now that I live with M it feels like lying—so usually I evade the truth. Every time grandma asks something like How many bedrooms do you have? I give her a different answer. Mostly noncommittal replies that don’t really express anything at all—There’s a big living room! The kitchen is small though! The bathroom gets lots of good light. There are nice parks nearby! Big Trees! Wow! Beautiful! I learn to speak like a real estate agent. As drag queen Jaida Essence Hall might say, Look over there! I’m not ready to tell her.
The story is that as I wash my very naked grandmother with the washcloth that she likes, gently exfoliating her back until I get the incredibly satisfying, Mmmmm, that feels good, it is me who feels naked. As if she can see into all of me. As if she knows everything about my life. And I want to tell her about it: my life, my partner, how we live together now, how happy I am. But I don’t, because I don’t want to see her face fall. The disappointment. I don’t want her to relieve me of my bathing duties. I don’t want to be dethroned from the title of favorite granddaughter. But most of all, I don’t want her shame. I have my own.
On Wednesday afternoons at 3 p.m. in the shower with my grandma, it is a dance—I know how to touch her body, she knows where to move, how to invite my touch. I am surprised to learn how good I am at this dance. The first time I bathed my grandma, I was nervous, but the moment I was in the bathroom with her, I felt cool, calm, collected. I knew what to do. The right amount of gentleness, the right amount of strength in my touch. When we are done, Grandma always thanks me profusely—it feels good to be thanked, to be needed and appreciated. I want to give my grandma some kind of small pleasure, to ease her loneliness—I hope if I ever reach ninety-seven, there will be someone there to care for me. Mostly, I don’t feel awkward or embarrassed.
In the shower I see my grandma; maybe for the first time, I really see my grandma. With my hands, I catch glimpses of her history—a life that was hard and so different from my own. Mostly in the shower we are quiet. Just two bodies. Sometimes she has bruises from bumping into things, or small falls. Around the purple skin, I am so careful.
In the shower, I wonder how my grandma sees me—I imagine she sees a good Christian girl hexed into this Jewish girl body. Around my grandma, I am soft, feminine—I like things like knitting, cooking, baking, and I tell her about these things. To my grandma, I am the Ideal Woman. But this is not really who I am. Or, I am so much more. I am not just a good granddaughter. I am weird, quirky, sometimes outspoken, sometimes quiet. I am so many things that my grandma doesn’t know. What would she think if she knew? On Wednesday afternoons I bathe my grandma and worry that if my grandma knew whom I love and am loved by, she would be ashamed. On Wednesday afternoons, I bear witness to my grandma—and ache to be seen.
I think my grandma will die without ever knowing the truth. But still, in the shower, as the glass fogs up and the water runs down my grandma’s back, as I massage her temples, her shoulders, her calves, I imagine saying, I’m gay I’m gay I’m gay, as the water sprays us both. I imagine saying, M is my lover; I love her. An incantation, a prayer—Please love me.
And as I clean her body, water pools around our feet—I wonder what it means to be clean. Am I clean? Have I lived a clean life? Grandma, have you? I don’t want to be clean if it means no M. If it means not being spooned to sleep at night by the person I love; if it means no more goodbye kiss at 7 a.m.—half asleep in bed curled around the ghost of M’s body—as she rushes out the door to catch the bus. And as the water runs down the drain, I wonder what it carries with it.
I stand in the shower and I bathe my grandma until she is clean.
Rumpus original art by Eva Azenaro Acero.