A note about the biblical significance of foot washing: There is real humility in the act. When people tell me I have a very glamorous life, I smile and think, "You know nothing about the feet." My grandmother has been known to squeal and say, "Ow! That was too close!" before I ever touch clipper to nail. Fancy pedicures are available at the assisted living home. I took her once, thrilled to have found such a meaningful way to spend my money. I sat with her through the whole thing, and while it seemed to go very well, she told me at the end that it wouldn't happen again. She did not like placing her feet in the hands of a stranger. "If you won't cut them, I'll do it myself," she said. But my grandmother's feet are as far away from her as China, and so I returned to my job.
Back in the days when my grandmother had a wallet with money in it and knew what she wanted to buy, I would count out the change for her in checkout lines. "Where would I be without her?" she would say to the disinterested teenager receiving the money. Then she would turn to me and say, "What's going to happen when you're my age? Who will take care of you? You'll be all alone."
And it's true. I have no children, and I never will. There will be no one who loves me, who will pluck out my chin hairs or run a Q-tip around in my ears, but I've never thought that the hope of free custodial care was reason enough to reproduce. At 39 I have to wonder what the chances are that I'll see 94 anyway. Life is, after all, a long obstacle course filled with car crashes and cancer. Certainly something will knock me off along the way.
"I'm saving my money," I tell her. "And when I'm your age, I'm going to rent myself the nicest granddaughter in the world. I'm going to rent one who's much better than I am. And when I die, I'm going to leave her everything." It's true, actually. That is my backup plan in case I live too long.
"You're smart," my grandmother says, squeezing my wrist. "You shouldn't have a baby." What she means is that she is my baby, and she would rather not share me.
After she went into assisted living, my grandmother made friends with food again and ate her way up to a record-breaking 180 pounds in a year and a half. When I took her to the doctor for her physical, she was mortified. "One eighty?" she said to me. "They must have weighed me with my sweater on."
"A 75-pound sweater?" I asked.
She handed it to me. "It's wool."
The doctor is pleased about the weight. Aside from her slipping mind and bad eyesight, my grandmother appears to be in glorious physical health, very possibly good for another ten years.
I want to believe I will be good for another ten myself. I remember my grandmother sitting on the edge of the bathtub, scrubbing my back when I was a child. Now she is in my tub and I am washing hers. They give good showers at the assisted living place, but there is nothing like a bath. Her skin, so recently stretched out, is pink and flawless. Her breasts are full. I wash every inch of her. She is mine, my body.
There was a time I thought that love was kissing, sweaty palms, desire. Now I know that love is this: sticking it out, the long haul. I pull her out of the tub, my chest and arms soaking, and stand her on a towel to dry.
"What is that stuff?" she asks. When I tell her it's lotion, she says that she's never heard of such a thing before. "But I like it," she says. "It's good."
I believe that liking lotion is a clear sign of life. I slather it on.
Ann Patchett is the author of The Patron Saint of Liars, The Magician's Assistant, and Bel Canto.
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