Greta

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 milks cows. She churns 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 “Vere 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 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 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. She was caring to a fault though, and watched after them 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 or someone 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 out the sheets on all of the tables.

The thing is, I asked her once when she had inquired 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 little quirk that I loved.

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 onto the shower stool. Unfailingly, she would say “Oh my!” and make a sound sort of like the Pillsbury 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 life. She’d talk about her old ginger cat or her favorite flowers or this 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 from her thinness. Sometimes, I would find myself counting the marks on her backside when she led the way into the bathroom. It seemed food had lost its appeal. At meal times she’d stare at it and then offer it to others around her.

Soon enough she started passing on her showers, too. First she’d skip it once a week and then multiple weeks in a row. Everything ached now, not just her shoulders. She couldn’t undress herself anymore but was too embarrassed to accept help. She often fell asleep fully clothed in her recliner and would end up wearing her little uniform multiple days in a row until a nurse gently prompted her to let us help her change. Sponge baths in her bed were easier, so that became her new routine for a while, though they didn’t offer her the same kind of relaxation and mental care that shower time once had.

Overall, she was fading. It often happens like that — over a long stretch of time and then all at once, like a shot. You don’t know what is going on inside until it’s upon them. Just like that.

I came on to my shift one day and an ambulance was outside the building. Walking through the lobby, I discovered that it was Greta the EMTs had with them. I came up alongside her and she grabbed my hands from the gurney they had put her on. She told me that there were cookies on the counter of her apartment she wanted me to grab. Taken aback, I said, “When you come back you can give them to me!” but she just took my hand and in a bittersweet, knowing way 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.

That Smell

There’s a particular smell that old people have. I’m not quite sure what it is. Equal parts perspiration and decay maybe, with a little ‘White Diamonds’ spritzed on the wrists. Whatever it is, I take a perverse joy in it. It reminds me of people I’ve loved and lost. It reminds me of bolo neckties, old school letter openers, and glass candy jars filled with peppermints and sugared orange slices. That smell, noxious and suffocating to most, reminds me of my grandparents.

The reason people my age are uncomfortable around the elderly is simple: the unknown. Most people spend limited time, if any, alongside seniors. They see them when they’re wheeled out for their big centennial birthday parties or carted to the family reunion to show how many generations stretch out beneath them. They’re a foreign concept. A novelty really–like The California Raisins, and in fact, pretty similar in appearance.

It’s also the gap in conversation. What could a young person possibly have in common with an 80 year old, right? A young person’s thought process I suppose is something like: this person is old and dying. I am not old and dying. I am young and full of life. Therefore, we have nothing in common. Of course, if they were once young and full of life like me, does that mean that I will one day be old? Will I die? It’s an understandably discomforting realization, one that most people would rather put out of their minds. Stay far from those who are close to death and you will never die.

The age gap doesn’t bother me though. I was raised by grandparents. I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by them my whole life. Two sets of grandparents and five living great grandparents that I clearly remember, and one that is more of a foggy memory–I can’t quite decide if my memories are legitimate or if I’m just picking up his face from polaroids I’ve seen and superimposing him into scenes I actually remember. Regardless, it was a village of ancients that were there to guide and nurture and impart decades of knowledge, and in my case, it took a village.

And maybe that’s why I was drawn to working at The Home. Maybe that’s why, despite all the problems that place had, I stayed for nearly four years, long after I knew that nursing wasn’t my calling. The fact of the matter is that I love old people. I love to hear their stories told in their froggy voices and stare at them when they don’t think I am. Study every wrinkle, every vein, every sunspot and mole. Learn what it is like to be them. Learn how family treats you when you’re old and can’t say no. Learn how people marginalize you until they realize you were right all along.

And above all else, learn the sobering fact of life—learn what it’s like to stop smelling that particular old person smell and recoiling in disgust, but instead be the body that makes it.