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Washing My Mother's Hair

Naked, standing by the tub, my almost ninety-three-year-old mother calls to me from the bathroom. “I’ll turn on the water,” she says, “Please help me take a birthday bath.”

From my mother’s study, through the open doorway, I see her on the bathmat with her three-pronged cane. Last night I flew in to New York from California for the birthday, just in time, I think, to be able to offer her this. I listen to the thundering of the bathwater, like the bass reverberation of a temple gong. Dating back to my childhood, when she was a slender leggy beauty, I remember my mum taking her bath—head resting on the back of the tub, a warm washrag soothing her forehead, body stretched out, knees bent, relaxed. As I grew up, I would often catch a glimpse of her through a crack in the door. Not to be disturbed. Her eyes closed, her expression—usually animated with extremes of delight, anger, amusement, irony, gratitude—settled into simplicity. 

We have been wandering since beginningless time in these samsaric worlds in which every being, without exception, has had relations of affection, enmity and indifference with every other being. Everyone has been everyone else's father and mother.

--Patrul Rinpoche, (1808–1887), homeless wanderer

Now, from my seat on the couch in the study, I appreciate her, standing tall, steam from the tub rising around her. She has a proud posture, lifting her chin and tilting her head. It’s her signature pose. This is my mum. I admire the luster of her silver curls, her slim legs, now visibly veined, but still finely shaped. Her belly is slack with folds of skin, more substantial than in her youth, but her breasts, while looser than before, are womanly breasts, like mine.

Today is a first, my mum asking me for help with a bath. Now her baths are “overseen by occasional minders,” as she puts it, mostly her dear Becca, seamstress by trade, who’s cleaned her house every other Saturday for years. My mum likes to run the water for herself. But even with handles and protective rails, she fears she’s lost the strength and steadiness to lower herself down or to pull herself up.


Has she? Or is she simply scared? She’s gone through radical changes since my last visit, just five months back. I run through the list—eye surgery, waning hearing, diminished strength, unsteady feet, sometime confusion and the deaths of five dear friends—several dating back to college—all gone.


“Ready now,” she directs me, “Stand right here next to me.”


I step into the bathroom to her side, behind us a photo diptych of her cradling my daughter Caitlin matched by a lookalike image of her grandmother holding her as a baby—generations of mothers and daughters. Steamy heat rises to the ceiling; the mirror over the sink is glazed with pearls of water.


I sidle up close to her. Okay, I’m ready. Let’s do this. I reach to grasp under her arms. “No!” She shakes me off. “Don’t hold me!” It’s her fierce voice. Alarmed, I jump back. Damn you. I silence my thoughts, purse my lips to contain a rush of hurt. Crazy anger as if from nowhere surges so quickly in me, has for years. Damn me. With years of practice, of vigilance, I have learned to contain it, but not enough. Not yet.

I torque my attention back to my mother, her effort. She’s concentrating all of her energy, intently absorbed. Challenging herself now to risk the step into the tub, she bends and grasps the handle on the outer side and steadies her feet on the rug. “Just be ready to catch me if I fall.” With Becca, she’s been working on this routine, inch by inch.

Slowly, she raises one leg and steps into the water, finding her footing on the rubber mat. Leaning in, she reaches with her other hand for the handle along the inside wall of the tub and clasps hold. She cautiously scales the outside wall with her other foot, landing trembling, two feet now on the rubber mat. That tremble frightens me. She grips both handles, leaning this way then that to find her balance. “Oh no,” she whispers. She begins to breathe hard.

I leap forward and seize her under both arms, holding her up suspended over the water, until she shakes me off again. My jaw clenches. What if she slips?

“But be ready to hold me up,” she reminds me, “just in case. . . .” Too much. Too little. I don’t know how to do this.

I readjust my feet so I can keep my footing and lean towards her, reaching out my arms, my hands ready below her armpits. Clutching the rails on both sides, she galvanizes every iota of strength and bends her knees to lower her body down into the water, then with a splash settles her buttocks on the rubber mat. With a jagged sigh, eyes closed, she eases her head against the back of the tub. Gradually, her face relaxes into repose.

She breathes there for a few moments. “You can leave now,” she dismisses me. “But I thought you . . . that I . . .” A twinge in my chest. Doesn’t she want me to soap her back? But she gestures toward the door to the study.


I return to the couch. Why this push and pull? What’s going on? I feel somehow off. There’s got to be a way to meet. After all, I too am a lover of baths. I close my eyes. I imagine immersing myself deep in a tub, feel the sweetness of the water, beyond any difficulties, with family, with friends. A refuge for wide, meditative silence.

Suddenly I get it: for my mum, the bathtub has been an intimate refuge, solitary, yet opening into everything, a place for peace and rest. So different —I have a flash thought—from the rest offered by her bed. For over fifty years my mother’s bed was a shared space of rest, but also wrangle and romance, with her six foot three, 200 pound husband Dillard, who is five years gone. Over the decades of their marriage, this bed was sculpted, his side now sunken in a large body-sized cavity, shadowed and vacant. Yet each bath, freshly poured, opens into a vast newness—doesn’t sag from use or retain the shape of loss. 

From the bathroom, my mum shouts, “Barbara!” I’m there fast. She flutters open her eyes. “Afterwards, for the birthday,” she says, “could you wash my hair?”

“You want me to wash your hair?” I ask, stunned. My whole life I’ve longed for a chance like this.

“Once I’ve rested a bit more.” She closes her eyes. With a gracious wave of her hand rippling through the bathwater, she ushers me out of the bathroom again. Back to the study. In, out, in out….


Her hair. She never let me touch it. Certainly not wash it. Not brush it. A vivid image comes to me of my young mum at an old-fashioned dressing table, her long hair unleashed from its coiled braid streaming past her shoulders, burnished brown and lustrous. How I pleaded, that little six-year-old me. “Please, can’t I brush it, Mommy? Just touch it?”

Behind her in the mirror I saw my pinched face with my Dutch boy cut, crooked cowlick and quivery jaw.

In strode Dillard, her new husband, a tall Texan with a twinkle and a drawl. “Cut off the whole damn mess!” He sidled right in close to my mum, grabbed hold of her hair. He whirled it around his hand, tucked the entire bundle under into a pageboy. She let him do that.

“I’ll never cut it, darling,” she teased over her shoulder.

The next afternoon, I came home from school to find her crying in the bathtub. “I shouldn’t have done it,” she kept snuffling. Then I saw the wet ringlets plastered to her head. She ran her fingers through the meager remains of her beautiful hair. I flung myself on the floor, pounding my fists and kicking my feet. She never let me touch it. Now it was gone.


“Ready!” sings out my mom, rupturing my reverie. She asks me to help her out of the tub and, “Then wash my hair. Becca washes it in the kitchen sink.”

“No reason for that,” I break in, “I can wash it while you’re still in the tub.” Memories of washing Caitlin’s hair when she was little, pouring water over her head, lathering up the shampoo, protecting her eyes. I can be my mom’s mother now. I picture myself kneeling on the bathmat, pouring warm water, sudsing her hair—the tenderness of touch, my hands, my mother’s scalp. Taking command, I tell her, “I’ll use a big pot from the kitchen.”

But my mother balks. “This is my bath and I want to get out. You can wash my hair in the sink!” Her voice rises.

Oh no. I don’t want to fight with her. Tears throb in the back of my throat. It would be so intimate to wash it in the bath. My voice rises too. “In the tub,” I insist.

“No!” she panics, lifting her head, flashing her eyes. “That won’t work!” Her breath rasps, quickening.

I override her. “I know exactly what to do.” I march off to her kitchen, coming back with the soup pot.

“But this bath water is dirty!” she argues.

“Don’t worry, mum,” I argue back. “I’ll get clean water from the sink.”

This is not how I want to be. I feel a rush of sadness.

My voice softens, “Please Mum, trust me.”

I fill the pot at the sink, test the warmth with my finger. I fold the washrag to protect her eyes. But her body shakes, resisting my touch.

I take a deep breath. I so want to be gentle, and for her to receive my care. I pour a little water over her head and lather in shampoo.

My mother’s shoulders tense up towards her ears. A high-pitched panic twang comes from her throat. . . .

I massage her head to soothe her. “Mum, “ I keep repeating, “It’s okay, it’s really okay. . . .” I brush my fingertips along her forehead.

As I pour the warm water from the pot over her crown to rinse out the soap, the steely strands part, reveal balding pink scalp. This is my mum, vulnerable and scared. She is at my mercy. We both know that.

I touch her cheek. Never wanted to be rough, to be a bully. “We’re almost done,” I assure her. I so long to connect.

“Done, at last.” Her voice softens too.

All that tussle, for what? I chide myself.

Still in the tub, she reaches out her hand for the towel. I hand her a light blue one, frayed, a small one handed down from her mother. Her face hidden in folds of blue terrycloth, my mother sits in the cooling water, rubbing her hair dry.

She emerges from the towel, smiling. “I’m ready to get out,” she says.

And I jump forward to catch her under the arms.


“I can do it!” she insists. With another burst of power, she clutches the rails and begins to pull herself to standing. Nothing can stop her. Her arms shaking with effort, she wrenches herself to her feet. Her dark eyes glint. “There,” she says as she steps onto the mat. Bright cheeks, silver ringlets, just then, a girl-child. This is a triumph. “So there!” I am struck by how beautiful she is.


From washing bowl

To washing bowl my journey

And just rigmarole!

     --Kobayashi Issa    


Painting by Nancy Spriggs

Painting by Nancy Spriggs

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