As Regards Touching—An Essay by Kate Holbrook
As our community mourns the death of Kate Holbrook, we look to her words for comfort. Her essay “As Regard Touching” is a beautiful tribute to the grandmother who helped raise her. It was published in the Fall 2002 Exponent II magazine, where Kate served as an associate editor.
My grandma’s skin was cool and dry, her joints surprisingly supple as we pulled white clothing over her heavy limbs, stroking her arms and legs. I tried to be meticulous in the execution of my service. My grandma had firm opinions about clothing, appearance, funerals, and I didn’t want to shame her. But despite our intentions, my aunts and I were awkward—I suspect the mortician tidied our work once we had finished. I stared and touched and smelled, trying to fill the giant void of her absence. But her physical presence only accentuated the impact of her spiritual absence, and the void engulfed my thoughts and speech. Only my emotions survived the vacuum of grief; they were screaming.
I remembered sitting on my grandma’s lap as she told me the story of Billy Goats Gruff in our oversized orange chair. She had French-braided my hair with these still hands and taught me to knead fudge, to test for the soft ball stage. She had put sample pieces in my eager mouth. I mourned my absence at her deathbed and wished that I knew more clearly where she had gone and how she was responding to the transition. I prayed that she would not find it difficult. I understood for the first time why Chinese tradition includes prayers to ancestors; I didn’t ask for blessings, but forgiveness.
I first attended to my grandma’s physical needs during kindergarten. My mother and I had recently moved from California to live with Grandma in Utah, and Grandma had slipped on some twigs on a path in the Uintah woods, breaking her ankle.
I spent each school morning feeling misunderstood by my little peers and teacher as I focused on how I might present convincing symptoms of illness and return home early. It did not help that I had tried and failed to do so two days prior.
After those few unpleasant school hours each day, I was free to return home and make peanut butter sandwiches for grandma and me (with too much jam and, she thought, too little peanut butter). In first grade, a potential friend made me a peanut butter, butter, and honey sandwich on store-bought white bread, which delighted my young palette. But I was not allowed to introduce this discovery into our family’s culinary repertoire as 1) we ate homemade bread, but what we then thought more important, 2) two butters was simply too decadent for three women with figures to maintain.
After lunch, I would clear our plates to the kitchen, and my grandma and I would play checkers on a little tray balanced on the arms of our adjacent chairs. We played and talked and she told me how smart, able, and pretty I was (though, as she always reminded me, “pretty is as pretty does”). Home was not always conflict-free—there was piano practice to endure—but I could be sure there that I was loved and had worth. After checkers, my mom, a schoolteacher, returned home and recited the day’s events.
Grandma’s ankle healed, but leg and back problems plagued her remaining decades, and I learned never to leave her when stairs, ice, or a barbed-wire fence stood in our path.
Years of our deliciously inappropriate laughter (during sacrament meeting, at congregants’ hair) intervened. My grandma taught me to measure flour, separate eggs, and disassemble the shower drain. We bought clothes and shoes for every occasion. We ate all kinds of candy. We went to the ballet, where I received a maternal reprimand for making too much noise with my Skittles. I attended BYU, and since my mom and grandma lived in Provo, I occasionally lived at home during college.
During one of those times, my grandma had back surgery in a fruitless attempt to ameliorate her chronic pain. One afternoon, my grandma was giving herself a spongebath and wasn’t able to reach her feet. She called to me and, full of apology, asked whether I could help her to wash her feet. My grandma hated to ask for help, but neither could she abide filth (one of her favorite words), so her loathing for a dirty body must have overwhelmed her reluctance to ask for help.
My memories don’t have corners (even my unconscious revels in female roundness) but consist of portraits replete with smudges, blurs, and points of clarity. I don’t remember the expression on my
grandma’s face or why I was home in the middle of the day. But I remember her calling to me and my entering her bathroom, which is still white and bright with scattered floral kisses of pink and blue. On that day the room was full of sunlight, and she sat at a stool near the sink with an orange plastic hospital tub at her feet. I remember feeling uncertain how I would react to helping her—I took special care of my own feet and harbored no special enthusiasm for encounters with those of others.
But I assured my grandma that I was glad to help and hoped she wouldn’t sense any reluctance. She was probably too acutely aware of her own discomfiture to note any coming from me. As I knelt and placed her foot in the tub of soapy water, my hesitation dissipated and I set about my washing as carefully as I could.
Not long into my task, I was embraced by a feeling of holiness. I felt that God was pleased with my small service and that this washing was, in some sense, outside of time, echoing through the ages. I suddenly, with clarity, understood the many paintings I’d seen of Christ washing his disciples’ feet. I felt poignantly, if infinitesimally, closer to a comprehension of Him. Sadly, foot-washing, however sacred, is a simple task, and I could not linger there for long. I wished for this communion to continue, but my grandma was tired of her stool.
More years passed, and I moved to New England, where I married and began to learn the unusual experience, for me, of living with a man. After six months living in St. Petersburg, Russia, and a first Christmas with in-laws instead of my mothers, I planned a January trip to Utah to compensate for the long separation.
My grandma was not herself. She didn’t approach me with her usual stream of questions and news, and she spent too much time in her bedroom. She had even given up hiding the fact that she lay on the couch to rest in the middle of the day. I saw her longing for past intimacies. She often grew confused in the night and thought she was once again sleeping with her sister, Elithe, who had died several years before. She confessed, and my mother confirmed, that she often called out my name when she heard the house creak at night, thinking it was me returning from a late outing and creeping past her bedroom to the stairs. As she explained this, her eyes filled with tears because I no longer lived with her.
A few nights before returning to Boston, I gave myself a pedicure while watching a video with my mom and grandma. One of my mom’s students had given her a selection of foot scrubs, washes, and lotions. From the initial soaking of my feet to the final waiting for the polish to dry, my conscience burned that | should do the same for my grandma. I recognized a message that I was meant to do so, that a pedicure would be a kind of ordinance, but I could not. The knowledge that my grandma’s desire for life was fading had started to penetrate my staunchest efforts to remain ignorant. I wanted to show her my love, but I could think only of Mary anointing Christ’s feet with spikenard and that Christ died not long afterward. I refused to prepare my grandma for burial.
The weightiest matters are beyond my control, and weeks later there were phone calls, heart attacks, and an agony that consumed me. In desperate attempts to make up for my sins of omission, I composed her long obituary, delivered her eulogy, wept, prayed, and did not sleep. And I dressed her body for burial.
I have a baby daughter, Amelia, now six months old. She has a range of coy, sometimes fetchingly wicked smiles, a few that she’s borrowed from my grandma. Amelia seems to have my grandma’s zeal for social interactions and, like my grandma, to take delight in laughter. When you look at Amelia in her stroller, her grin comes out and her enthusiasm struggles against the restraints of stroller seatbelts.
Three years after my grandma’s death, I sometimes see her in dreams where she is often unwell, a faceless body that needs my care. Awake I still yearn for the vibrant woman I loved. And I care for Amelia. I wash, stroke, and dress her warm limbs. I bathe her little feet—with water and with my kisses.