Every day Alex, who was five, would visit her great-grandparents who lived
two houses from her. Her ninety-three year old great-grandfather, Grandpa
Sam, was short and slim with a close- cropped white beard, and eyes the
color of the sky. Healways wore a shirt and tie and shiny leather shoes
that tied. Her great- grandmother, Grandma Wilma, had just turned ninety.
She had silver hair that she wore in a braid on the top of her head, blue
eyes that matched Grandpa Sam's and she never wore pants like her mom.
Most afternoons around five Alex's great Aunt Hermione would come to the
living room and say "Mom, it is time for your milk bath". Alex
would watch as Grandma Wilma got up, gave her a hug and disappeared into
the bathroom. She loved the sound of the words "milk bath" and
her curiosity knew no bounds. Did her great-grandmother actually bathe
in milk? Where would you keep that much milk? Wouldn't it cost a lot of
money? And why would you do such a thing? It seemed like some kind of
secret ritual and she longed to be included. Sometimes if her Mom wasn't
around Alex would tiptoe to the hall and sit outside of the bathroom,
ear to the door, trying to hear something that
would reveal the mystery inside.
"What is a milk bath Mom?," she had asked one day.
"I don't know. Something from the old country I think. Not sure,"
without looking up from her magazine.
"Aren't you curious?," Alex asked.
"No, I'm not. And don't upset your great-grandmother by asking her."
Exasperated, Alex huffed "Why would that upset her? ".
"Well, It might embarrass her. When she grew up people didn't talk
about private things like what they did in the bathroom".
Alex loved Grandma Wilma, and did not want to upset her, so she approached
her great grandfather the next day.
"Grandpa Sam, what is a milk bath?".
He looked at her and chuckling replied "After more than seventy years
with your grandma, I haven't the slightest idea! Seems silly doesn't it?".
Alex knew that Grandpa Sam was a rabbi and a wise man but she didn't
understand how he could know so many things but not know about this.
"Come, let's play a game of cards," he said still laughing,
"that is something I
know very well". Alex loved playing cards with him, but inside she
promised herself that she would not be deterred from her quest.
Aunt Hermione had short, bright red dyed hair, grey eyes, a big wart on
her right cheek and she was shortest grownup Alex knew. Aunt Hermione
was tricky because Alex never knew which Aunt Hermione she was going to
the nice one or the grumpy one. But since every other attempt
had failed she worked up her courage to ask her about the milk baths.
She waited for one of the days when her aunt seemed calm and happy. She
was in kitchen making coffee cake and Alex asked if she needed any help.
"No sweetheart, but thanks for offering".
"Aunt Hermione" Alex asked in most calm and respectful voice,
" What's a milk
Her aunt raised her right eyebrow and said "Some things are just
especially things in the bathroom. That includes milk baths. I can't understand
why someone your age would be interested in such things. Now, go read
a book with Grandpa". Another dead end.
A few days later, when Grandma Wilma and her Aunt had disappeared into
bathroom an opportunity presented itself. Her mom was outside on the porch
and her great grandfather was reading the newspaper in his favorite chair.
Alex tiptoed quietly down the hall, kneeled by the bathroom door and tried
peeping through the keyhole. Just as she got herself in the perfect position,
Grandpa Sam came into the hallway. Turning red in the face she quickly
got up and walked toward him, but she knew he had seen her. He just put
his hand out for her, she took it and they went to the living room and
played cards. He never said one word about her spying and she loved him
even more for that.
The next day her aunt called her into the kitchen and in a very stern
"Today you will come into the bathroom during your grandmother's
milk bath. I don't agree with this, but your grandmother wants you to
be there. And to my surprise your grandfather agrees with her! They would
never let any of us children see them while they were bathing and I can't
understand what has gotten into them now, at their age. It's disgraceful!
I will honor their wishes, but I make the rules. If you don't follow the
rules you will be removed from the bathroom immediately. Do you understand?".
Alex felt her heart beating fast and she had to suppress the squeal of
was bubbling up from her feet to her throat. She felt that if she didn't
hold on to the kitchen chair, she might float off the ground. Alex remained
as still as she could, looked her Aunt in the eyes and said quietly, "Yes,
"Good, here are the rules. First, I will put you on a chair and you
are not to move from that chair until I say so. Next, you may not make
any noise - no talking, no questions, no sounds - nothing. Lastly, you
may not talk to anyone about what you see in the bathroom except your
mother and father. No one else. Now," she said, "repeat the
rules so I know you understand them".
Alex repeated each of the three rules perfectly as she had been hanging
aunt's every word.
Aunt Hermione nodded, "In other words, you are to be invisible in
that bathroom.It will be as if you were not there. Your grandma knows
my rules and she has agreed not to talk to you and to pretend that you
are not there, that you are invisible. This is the only way that I can
bear this whole thing!" she said rolling her eyes and shaking her
head. "Now go the the living room. I'll come and get you in a little
while. Do you have any questions?".
Alex shook her head, and quietly said, "thank you". As she walked
to the living
room she had chills on her neck, and her heart was still beating fast.
She couldn't believe this was really happening! When she entered the living
room her greatgrandparents were talking like they did every day, but Grandpa
Sam looked at her, raised his eyebrows and nodded. She walked up to him
and put her head on his shoulder. She didn't say a word for fear that
if she did, everything would go back to how it had been before.
The bathroom was a large rectangular space. When you entered, the bathtub,
the kind with animal feet, was on the right side. At the end of the bathtub
was the toilet. Across the whole back wall, opposite the door, was a built
in shelf with drawers and cupboards. In the middle of it was an open space
with a stool. Above the opening was a mirror that went all the way to
the ceiling and there were windows and lights on either side of the mirror.
The only sink, the kind on one leg, was across from the toilet. Across
from the bathtub was open space, with one of those squiggly things that
kept the door from hitting the wall. Up higher were bars and hooks to
hang towels and things. The whole room was white, including the floor
which was made of tiny, six-sided tiles. Aunt
Hermione had brought in a small chair from her bedroom and placed it on
the left side of the room toward the end of the bathtub; from this vantage
point Alex could see the whole room. Aunt Hermione pointed to the chair
and Alex sat down.
Aunt Hermione started the bathwater, "I'll be right back". When
she returned she had a large bottle of milk in one hand. She put the milk
on the floor and brought out a small dark blue glass bottle from one of
the cupboards. Alex watched her aunt pour all of the milk into the water
and swirl it around with her hand. The water, which had been transparent,
was now a light white color and Alex could no longer see through it. Aunt
Hermione then opened the small blue bottle and poured some drops into
the water. Almost immediately Alex became lightheaded from the most delicious
smell, which she didn't recognize. She wanted to ask her aunt what it
was, but remembering the rules, she kept quiet, although it was one of
the hardest things she had ever done. She thought maybe Aunt Hermione
had done it as a test to see if she would break the rule
before Grandma Wilma came in, but Alex was determined not to get kicked
out of the bathroom.
After a what seemed like a long time, while her aunt continued stirring
the milky, delicious-smelling water with her hand, she said " The
hot water helps her arthritis, the milk is good for her skin and the lavender
oil is good for the soul. I will be back with your great-grandmother shortly".
Alex breathed a sigh of relief, she had passed the first test.
Grandma Wilma was a small woman, and as long as Alex could remember she
always wore a skirt and blouse with a sweater or vest that she knit herself,
her black oxford tie shoes and the kind of nylons that put a line up the
back of her legs. Her plain gold wedding band matched Grandpa Sam's and
the only other jewelry she wore were small pearl earrings.
When Aunt Hermione and Grandma Wilma came into the bathroom, Alex kept
her eyes mostly toward the floor. Grandma Wilma sat on the stool and slowly
began taking off her clothes; shoes, vest, blouse and skirt. Alex was
trying not to stare by looking down every few seconds. Grandma Wilma let
her slip drop off her shoulders and scooted it off her hips; she only
wore her bra and underwear and something elseunder her panties that had
elastic things to keep up her stockings. She unhooked this thing from
behind her and pulled the nylons from their elastic holders while her
Aunt slowly rolled the nylons off her grandmother's feet and put them
with her other things. Grandma Wilma removed her bra and wiggled off her
panties. Her aunt quickly
wrapped a towel loosely around her great-grandmother. But Alex had seen
enough; she had seen her flesh relax into itself; natural in its nakedness.
Her aunt held the towel behind Grandma Wilma, and in front of Alex, as
she helped her into the bathtub.
Alex watched as her great-grandmother closed her eyes and laid back in
the tub, breathing the steamy air; she could tell that she was enjoying
the the hot, milky water on her body. When Aunt Hermione walked to the
shelf for another towel, and her back was turned, Grandma Wilma opened
her eyes, smiled and winked at Alex, whose eyes became wide as saucers
as she tried desperately not to smile or make a peep. Alex watched as
her aunt scrubbed her Grandma Wilma's back with a soft brush and waited
patiently until it was time for her Grandmother to emerge from the tub.
Wrapped in the towel she sat on the stool again facing the mirror. The
towel had fallen and barely covered her at all. Aunt Hermione unwound
the braid on the top of Grandma Wilma's head and silver hair fell down
her back almost touching her bottom.
Alex had never seen anyone as beautiful as her great-grandmother. Her
were crooked and her joints had ugly bumps and bulges; but Alex saw more.
Her body was full and round; without the pointy, bony parts like her mom
and other ladies she knew. Not fat, but round and curvy. And her skin
was like that white, milky glass that her mom collected. Grandma Wilma's
face was pink and creamy, the lines around her eyes and mouth soft. She
looked carefully at her great-grandmother, studied her, trying to understand
where the beauty came from.
She watched as her Aunt Hermione brushed her great-grandmother's hair,
strokes every day" she said out loud.
searching to understand the difference between her Grandma Wilma
and the other women she knew. Her mom was pretty but in a different way
- more angular, with make up and hair spray. But there was something more
Alex watched as her aunt helped her great-grandmother put on fresh
underclothes and get dressed; helped her braid her long, silver hair and
put it on top of her head again. But that thing Alex had seen was still
there; just a bit hidden. On her way out the door Grandma Wilma bent down
and kissed Alex on the top of the head; the smell of lavender remained.
Alex waited until her aunt told her she could leave the room, "remember
the rules now."
It took Alex many years to fully understand what she had experienced in
bathroom that day. To come to understand that her Grandma Wilma looked
like the women in a Reuben or Rembrandt painting; round, full, soft, translucent;
not remade by girdles and corsets and other's ideas of what her body should
look like. But it was the other that took her longer to apprehend. That
her great-grandmother was comfortable in her skin, with all of its wrinkles,
and bumps and crooked toes. She inhabited her body with grace and peace;
they were dear friends. And it was this other thing that could not be
captured in a painting or photo; this deeper thing that Alex had been
privileged to encounter in a bathroom many years ago.