A Short Preface:
Early mornings in the cold and dark months are dictated by endless refills of piping hot coffee with sweet and low to go with canned peaches, toast and boysenberry jam to offset the morning’s many medications. Once they have full bellies all of the old ladies in my residence will fall back soundlessly in their chairs and wheelchairs to rest. In one’s golden years habit dictates everything; by a 90th birthday most loved ones have died or become annoyed with age and all that comes with it. Retired for more than 30 years, the daily routine is all that can get someone out of bed in the morning, hoping that maybe, some morning after the passing of today they won’t have to get up, any morning, ever again. is a wake up call, nine is breakfast and unless it’s a person’s shower day, by ten they are sound asleep again.
(There were mornings where I would shower Helga and the world was losing its light.)
Helga Rube was, is and will be until-death-does-she-part, my Thursday morning shower.
I wait in the doorway of the white tile bathroom and watch her get undressed. She does so with the utmost care. Until recently, she would water-color likenesses of her most likeness worthy memories once a week. The rose petal still-lives would take her all afternoon, and fighting sleep she would wrench her eyes alert until the brushstrokes were complete. Her eyesight has since faded, though it’s painful to know her memories are clearer than she can now render them.
Her delicate hands now remove the strands from her shoulders of her off-white lace undershirt. The shirt has many holes in it, and through the backside you can see “Rube,” written black in childlike handwriting. Sometimes on Thursday mornings she will smile her off-white toothy smile and say “I think I need new undershirt, but hopefully Jesus will remember me soon and I won’t need one.” She then giggles wildly and I smile back at her while she falls onto the off-white plastic seat of the toilet. I usually take this opportunity of her off-balance laughs to slip off her slippers and socks. I always reply “Jesus is going to be here, he’s going to be here soon.” When she is reminded of her sweet savior, her eyes grow the width of her face, she looks blankly for miles and drawls “Oh, yes…yes he is.”
When finally Helga stands up she is less than five feet tall. Never tall in her day she is even more shrunken now. Her shoulders have collapsed and stolen inches from her. I touch her back with my right hand, and hold her right hand with my left. I gently lead the few slippery steps from the toilet seat to the seat in the shower. Her skin feels as soft ‘neath my fingertips as it does dry and cracked. Her face is always rosy with big smiles, especially when her daughters visit, but her body is as white as the surrounding bathroom tiles. She is mapped out with tiny vein-writings; they are scribbled all over her body. I never doubt that they are sacred verses from the bible written in God’s language noting important events that have taken place in Helga’s life. Someday, I hope to take photographs of them and decipher the red words. Maybe the lyrics on her back will say when Jesus is coming for her, and I can tell her so she can write it, in childlike handwriting on one of her calendar squares.
The shower head is a white bulb attached to a slinky white hose on the white tiled wall. It is as fickle as I, or I bet even Helga was as a girl. I say this because often when I bend in her ear to tell her I must wait for the water to warm up, she’ll laugh again and say “I used play kissing games with boys,” matter-of-factly.
I tell her “But you went to church!”
“Oh but we didn’t do anything bad,” she’ll reassure me.
I give Helga a hot pink wash cloth to cover her eyes with. When the water is done coughing up cold and hot spurts, I bring the coursing droplets to Helga’s feet. She wiggles her toes and laughs again. As I bring the water up the length of her body, shins to knees, to belly, she dances a little in her seat. Once I have reached her back with the warm water she lets out a relieved “Awwwwwww,” and sighs a deep sigh.
At this point, when I first started the Thursday shower routine, I felt as though I was violating this pious woman. She rocks back and forth in her chair slightly and repeats “That feels good, mmm yeah that feels good,” as I wash her. Orgasmic amounts of enjoyment flow out from her small wrinkled body as I wash away the week’s soil. The shower head in my hand can hardly keep up the stream of water to match the stream of vividly out-flowing happiness from Helga. I used to think thoughts like ‘When she was a wife and not a widower is this what she sounded like when she made love? Am I hearing faint recollections of bedroom encounters of 40 years ago?’ I would try and imagine her delicately hanging skin tighten up around her body. She was a firm little woman with perky breasts and a flat belly. Her husband was tall and dark haired and if I thought hard enough I could see the beads of sweat collecting on his brow as she wildly laughed and moved against him saying “Oh, yeah that feels good, mm yeah that feels good.” After months of Thursdays, I have matured in that I can happily give pleasure to her with the shower without feeling awkwardly sexual anymore.
When the house water plays jokes on us, Helga will yell “Too hot!” or “Too cold!” as I hurriedly fiddle with the lever to make the temperature comfortable again. When I do she lets me know, “Mm, that’s better. Yeah.”
I wash her hair as gently as I can. Her hair is whiter that the tiles in the bathroom. It is without pigment, nearly glowing. This is why I know, when Jesus does remember her, she will sprout pure white wings.
Helga cuts her own perfect bob. It looks like a French tress, especially when she wears her beret out to the library. Once recently, she trimmed her bangs; she was in the bathroom for almost an hour when she came out angrily and told me “They just kept getting shorter.” Even less than a quarter inch long, I still thought they framed her round face nicely. Still half angry she let herself chuckle and said “Oh hooey, it grows,” and allowed her walker lead her to her room as she trotted behind it.
I wash her pure white hair gently because I know she appreciates gentleness. My dog Truk that accompanies me to work will bark sharply at anyone who enters the front door. Helga’s shoulders jump, her gray eyeballs pop a little and she scurries off to her room for quiet. I believe if Truk only growled under his breath, she would approve and stay in her seat on the green sofa instead of departing. She is often the first one up in the morning and sits on the end of the couch nearest the window. She lays back and reads her church bulletin “Our Daily Bread,” and if she stays still, Truk will let himself up on the couch next to her. She laughs and says “Aren’t you cute?” and leans against him. I’m always relieved she forgives his loud guard-dog barks.
When all the white suds have made ribbons upon the white bathroom tiles, I bend down again and tell Helga in her ear “I’m turning the water off now.” She nods approvingly back. I pull out two over-sized hot pink towels wrapping one around her shoulders and one over her legs. She is swimming in a sea of hot pink. Every Thursday she pulls the towel over her head and pulls it back quickly whispering “Peekaboo…” and smiles. I kneel at her feet and dry them off reverently. As I slip on her slippers she will always reach one’“raisined’ hand down and touch my shoulder. She asks “Are you in love?”
The question, even though I know its coming fills me with butterflies.
Instead of saying it, I nod. Yes.
She smiles “I was in love; my husband was tall, we met in
I nod again and reach across the floor for her underwear. “Yes a sister,” I sing back.
“Oh, a sister, that’s nice. My girls are good sisters. They love each other… I love youuuuu honey. You’re a nice girl.”
I stand up by now and from the bottom of my gut say “Helga, I love you too.” My light that flew away so fast before my shift has flooded back. She has pulled it out of parts of my heart I hadn’t yet found and put it in my hand. Now I am touching towels to her damp skin and drying her with all the light she has given me.
“Where you from?” she beams.
I have her pink buttonless robe clutched to my chest and I always tell her the same place, “
“Oh!” she’ll acknowledge jubilantly. “Me too, I lived in
“I only lived there until I was three months old, I don’t remember. We moved to N.Y. that’s where I spent my childhood.”
“Oh! N.Y., scary. Thomas brought me there once, I hid in the hotel room!” She laughs as she brings her tattered off-white undershirt from the hanger back to her bare chest. Her breasts hang down and touch her belly. They are sleepy with feeding children and weary with years of lying dormant. I love them, worn breasts in general. I love them because I see them as special life giving power we bear as women. Helga is a great woman, beside all else, because she was a great mother that fed her girls from her breasts. Now, Helga’s nipples are barely pink and I can see through the surrounding skin. If they were smaller, I’m sure I could see right through to her heart.
“My father used to tell us kids when we get old we’re all butt and belly. Its true!” she always tells me as she ties her robe. Her belly is the rounded resting place for her breasts, and her butt matches. I suppose she’s right then.
“Can you believe I’m 96 years old? It was only yesterday I tried to learn how to swim in the
I follow behind her quietly, and behind me following at my heels is Truk who has been waiting for us patiently outside the bathroom door the entire duration from dry, to wet, to dry. We are a parade down the small hallway, walker leading the way.
Helga’s room is decorated with family pictures and water-color paintings. Each painting is signed by her and each photograph has a story by her. Her favorite, she points to when I am following her into her room and says, “This was my grandson Eric’s wedding. Elizabeth his bride is beautiful isn’t she? See, see? I right there, see me?”
I now giggle a, “Yes.”
After we dress ever so carefully, Helga sits and I blow dry and style her pure white hair. The warm air feels good, I watch her as she closes her eyes and grins. After I comb it out I kneel in front of her again and touch her chin, “Bella!” I announce.
“What is that? Spanish?” she asks.
“No, Italian. It means beautiful, Helga.”
“Oh, what’s your name honey?” she’ll ask again.
“Nicole.” I always feel a drop in low part of my stomach when she forgets.
“Oh…yeah…that’s right…I remember. French name. You’re parents must be confused!” She laughs as hard as she can now. Her eyes squeeze shut and it’s like every funny moment she has ever had in 96 years of funny moments is being compressed into one, big laugh. She puts her left palm on her belly to contain herself. “I go bed now. See you at lunch?”
“Yes, I’ll come wake you at lunch.” I wait out in the hallway and leave her white door ajar. I peek in with one eye and watch her. Every Thursday her rickety legs allow her to kneel beside her bed and pray her Thursday afternoon prayer…