It’s funny how names conjure up images. A Brandi is a surefire stripper. A Chad is a gym rat douchebag who says things like, “I’m counting my macros.” And a Greta, well, a Greta is the type of gal who will milk cows. She’ll churn butter. She’ll make you a strudel with said milk and butter so good that it will make you cry, and then she’ll slap you across the mouth for crying because she’s one tough strudel.
I once knew a Greta. A real life, butter-churning-cow-milking-mouth-slapping Greta from Germany. Her last name was Von Vueghe (pronounced Von – Vay) and I used to like to pretend I was the fat kid from Willy Wonka and say in a thick accent “Where did Greta go? Uh oh, she’s going zee Von Vay!”
I know, hilarious.
Greta thought so too actually. She’d laugh at all my jokes when I gave her her bi-weekly shower. I mean maybe it was because I controlled the shower temperature, but I think she genuinely liked me. She used to send me home with little shortbread cookies she’d wrapped up in a napkin and tell me not to tell anyone else or they’d get jealous. It was our secret.
When Greta came to the home, she was a round little thing. She had a bowl haircut and wore turtlenecks with matching pants and a beaded necklace exclusively. A uniform, very Germanic in its practicality. Sometimes, if it was cold, she’d put on a little black shearling vest her daughter had gotten her, but that was rare. She had a walker with a pouch on the front in which she’d keep newspapers, sweets, and her knitting. Her feet sometimes knocked against the walker because of the way they sort of splayed out – a knee injury in her 40’s, I think she said.
Weeks after moving in, Greta became fast friends with a Lena and a Sara, also from Germany but different parts. Whereas Greta’s speech would have benefitted from a rolling subtitles bar beneath her everywhere she went, Lena and Sara’s accents were almost non-existent. They had been in the States for a while, Sara, I believe, since her teens. Unfortunately, they also differed in that their minds were farther gone than Greta’s. This sometimes made her sad, but she was maternal to a fault, and watched after her friends like a mother goose, guiding them back into place should they wander.
I think she’d always been that way – nurturing. It was like me and the shortbread cookies. She needed to feel useful, that she was caring for someone. She would always ask if there was something she could be doing, something she could be taking care of. If the community garden needed volunteers to tend it, she’d be plucking weeds despite her arthritis. If there was a bingo night, she’d be there first, helping the staff set up the tables.
The thing is, I asked her once when she asked if I needed someone to iron my sweater, “Who is caring for you?”
That’s what shower time became – someone caring for her. Twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays, I would go to Greta’s room with a pile of towels. I knew how many and which sizes to bring: a small one for outside the door; a large one for the bathroom floor; a washcloth for her face; a medium one for her hair; and a large one to wrap around her waist. She never covered her top half, a quirk I adored.
She was able to undress on her own, though it was time consuming, so she often did it ahead of time and greeted me completely nude. “Velcome Erica!” she would say, her breasts and under arm skin swaying in unison as she waved me in. She would shuffle into the bathroom leading the way. I’d adjust the water, getting it to the perfect spot and then help her leave her walker behind and plunk down on the shower stool. Unfailingly, she would say “Oh my!” and make a sound sort of like the Pilsbury Doughboy’s giggle when she plopped in place.
Once she acclimated to the water, I would put the washcloth gently over her eyes and form a border about her hairline with my fingers so that when I let the warm water wash through her hair, none got in her ears. She used to lean back and enjoy the moment. She’d let out a happy sigh as I ran my fingers through her hair and massaged her scalp with shampoo. The skin on her back was taught and smooth, save for a few moles. I would lather it up with eucalyptus soap and massage her achey shoulders.
She’d tell me stories from beneath the washcloth about her daughter and her favorite flowers and an artist she once met who called her his muse and kissed her on the hand which made her very embarrassed. She’d tell me about how she cared for her daughter and worried about her living in a big city far away from her. She tell me about Lena and Sara and how their minds were slipping. She told me how she found Sara wandering the corridor after dinner and brought her back. She told me how much she cared for the world and what would happen to it. She told me everything.
Over the couple of years that I knew her, I watched Greta go from portly to skeletal. Where there once was cushioning for the shower stool, there was now hard bone. Her arms became bruised and sores opened up on her body. Sometimes, I would find myself counting the marks on her back when she led the way into the bathroom. Over time, food had lost its appeal and she started passing on her showers. First once a week and then multiple weeks in a row. Everything ached. Sponge baths in her bed were easier.
When they took her to the hospital the last time I saw her, she grabbed my hands from the gurney and told me that there were cookies on the counter of her apartment she wanted me to take. Still trying to take care of others. I said, “When you come back you can give them to me.” And she shook my hand in a bittersweet knowing way and kissed it.
And after a few days, she didn’t come back. My sweet, motherly Greta who would gladly milk the cows and churn the butter should you ask, went the Von Vay.