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Ellen Blum Barish

Ellen Blum Barish
This month, I’m sharing a short excerpt from my memoir, Seven Springs, which is scheduled for release this spring.

 

“Let’s get you into the bath.”

These six words, spoken by to me by my grandmother when I was 12, made an indelible impression. I didn’t know it then but she was modeling how to be there for a loved one who needed healing. And it bonded me to her for life.

It was evening by the time she arrived at my house, several hours after the accident in which the car I was getting a ride home from school was struck by a Mack truck. I had been lucky that spring afternoon. I had only lost my front tooth, but hours later, I was still bleeding.

She knocked lightly on my bedroom door, uttered those words and then 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, respecting my preteen modesty 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 swash of gray.

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 crash.

We sat there together quietly while she lightly stroked my back, wordlessly, for the longest and more luxurious bath I ever had, long enough to wrinkle my finger and toe pads. Afterward, she dried me off with a warm towel, turning the other way as I got into my nightgown, and escorted me back to my room. She grabbed another pillow from the hall closet and set it on my bed and waited until I found a comfortable position. Then she slipped back into the night.

Decades later I would discover that my grandmother had attended to me in a way that closely approximated the Talmudic rules for bikor cholim, the Jewish etiquette for caring for people who are ill. The guidelines include everything from the length of time for the visit, the time of day, one’s body posture and how to dress.

“Visit during the last three hours of the day when the pain is strongest.”  Grandma arrived at my house in the evening.

“One who enters to visit the sick should not sit on a bed, nor a bench, nor a chair but should enrobe and sit on the ground for the Divine Presence rests above the bed of the patient.” She sat on the cold tile bathroom floor at my back, and did not hover.

“One should dress as if going to synagogue.” Grandma was wearing a dress.

“Remain quiet 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 the sound of my breath.

“Position oneself at the same level as the sick person as it is an indication of empathy.” Grandma sat on the floor behind me.

“Do not overstay.” After the bath, my grandmother toweled me dry, returned me to my bed and headed home.

Her instinct to come to my side that night was her nature. But showing up and knowing what to do are different things. She must have known that she’d be needed that dark night of my 12-year-old soul.

My grandmother gave me many gifts, but the biggest was knowing her Jewishly soaked heart.That bath, and her quiet presence that night, are my sense memory of what love looks like.

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Photo from the Blum family archives.

 

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