The room was dark. Filled with her things. Jewelry boxes, high-heeled shoes of every color and design, broaches, crocheted purses, hat boxes. And the smell of moth balls in the closet.
I'd come to give her a bath.
I knew it would be a silent task. Dementia, for some sudden unknown reason, had robbed her of coherent speech and most things dignified. It wasn't until the warm washcloth hit her forearm that I began to hear a mumble. She smiled.
As much as I enjoyed doing this for her, I could not stand the thought of revealing the rest. What had life done to her? How much had she been bruised? The fall, the doctor, the bed rails...
I sprinkled some lilac powder on the sheets and began the sacred task. Tenderly undressing. Unraveling. My fingertips exploring skin I'd never seen.
It felt like a dream. And I was privy to a secret.
The day she died, soon after this day in my memory, I remember looking at her and thinking how doll-like she appeared. Peacefully gone. Smiling and dressed in a blue gown. Not long after her mind left, she'd decided to go too.
It was time.
I pull the stockings down below her knees, through the feet, lowering the clothing to the floor. Her arms peppered with tanned brown freckles from working outside in the fields as a youth, spotted and tired. Her face golden, wrinkled. And beautiful. Chin ever so slightly pointed, cheekbones high, haughty green eyes and resolve - on a face that sometimes saw pain I can only imagine. Eyes that could always see right through my shenanigans, my stories guised with endless questions. She had a way of listening to my heart like no one else, this doll, my grandmother. Everything I ever said delighted her - the serious and the silly. Her head would roar back with a laugh and a twinkle. I so miss her laugh.
The water shocks her thin elbows and knees, trickling on the cold hardwood floor, the wringing of the cloth in the pan. The sloshing. One stroke after another.
Because today, my fumbling fingers are speechless.
The rest...uncover the rest....I did not want to look.
But I had to.
Her gown fell to the floor. I gasped.
Oh my God.
If ever the curve of a woman's body told a story it was this day.
I was in my early thirties and I swear she had my skin. How long? How long had it been hidden underneath the dresses and the hats... the girdles and the hosiery. How long? How long had she bore this secret? That silly grin of hers and the mischief in a wrinkled nose smile covered up the woman inside the girdle. The belts I loved so much, gorgeous clasps around her tiny tiny waist that left men lingering just a bit too long around the buckle. Sparkles on the outside and a secret treasure I'd just discovered.
What a strange and wonderful coincidence that neither time nor weather had managed to touch the part of her that no one sees.
Dear Lord, I hope I look like this when I am old.
The roundness of her belly, the muscle tone, bone structure....did not look just familiar. We were mirror images. Expertly clothed behind an exterior of windblown days, underneath the hard facade of freckles and folly, there lived an unwashed princess. Her legs could have been mine. Her hands. Her hips. Her smile. The wrinkle in her nose. All mine. Every part of her looked like me as though the difference in our ages did not span forty years. Shielded behind the mysterious cloak of a life lived proper and a life lived wild, I saw a lady smiling whimsically in the sheets. Silken. Smooth. White. Pure. Lovely.
She was as untouched by time as anything I'd ever seen.
Seventy-four. And my grandmother was beautiful.
She'd kept that part of herself to herself.....except, as I imagine now in my grownup mind, from my grandfather, who adored every inch of her wackiness, her brain, the sloop of her eyes cast downward to dispel his disapproval, which nearly always lasted less than a second and a half once she'd aimed and launched the gaze that stopped him in his tracks. I watched it. I saw.
Surrender was his specialty.
I always wondered as she pranced among the lowliest of women who envied her heels, what really lay beneath the woman. We all do, you know. We all wonder.
Could I have dreamed that more than twenty years later her skin would hold such strength and promise....for me?
Yes, GrandMama...I understand. I added more hot water, soap on the washcloth, tender touch, slow and steady....but not before she saw my tears that fell on her leg in the lilac water where the warmth of my love lay glistening in the crook of a perfectly shaped calf.
She could not have been more beautiful to me that day. Or more vulnerable.
I will never forget what she had to say ...as the water sloshed about and the lilac bloomed. I took note. It was as if she gave me permission to love my own body, my own womanness. How can I ever repay her?
When I look in the mirror these days it is her face I see. Almost a mirror image. As my own girlish whims settle into womanly baths and secrets of my own, I find it comforting to draw a hot tub of water - and remember the sound of her trust. And what I learned the day I came to give her a gift.....only to find she'd imparted something I could never match or measure in this world.
Sometimes I see her still. With long wavy golden hair glistening down her back, standing tall by a powerful river......watching.
She never says a word.
But the water is fine. And warm.
On my skin.
Reprinted from February 2008.
Copyright © Mimi Lenox. All Rights Reserved.