I do feel that since I have inherited the ‘bad eyes’ from my Granny that I may have done anything to make sure that I did not end up like she did. Anyone with bad eyesight can relate to this. It is hard when one cannot see- to actually be seen in the world. It was like those thick glasses become a wall so dense that people didn’t know that there was someone in there. I tried everything I could to shine – I still catch myself doing it today. Learning hard at school, entering school plays, dancing in the street, posing wildly in photographs.
Poor Granny had cataracts really bad. In our wee house she sat at the end of the sofa towards the scullery door. It didn’t matter because she couldn’t see the television anyway, right? Wrong- she needed to be in the middle where she could feel that she belonged. Not at the edge where the draught gave her an earache. I’m so sorry Granny. I wasn’t a bad child, neither were my siblings. We were children struggling with an alcoholic mother, a father who we could barely remember whose alcoholism put him in jail. Oh yes and there were ‘The Troubles” in Northern Ireland.
I have realized that memories of my Granny are vague. This disturbs me because I don’t think of myself as unaware, but I do remember the following:
I would ask Granny if she needed help washing her hair. Boiling the kettle took a few minutes as we only had cold water on tap. I rinsed out the plastic basin in the Belfast Sink that was used for washing dishes, washing food, washing clothes and washing people.
I found a mug ready for scooping and pouring. Granny took out all of her bobby pins from her hair and placed them in glass so they wouldn’t get lost. She bent over, pulling a sweater up over her head. Her skin was loose and crepey and as she leaned forward towards the steam in the basin her wrinkled breasts fell forward in her vest. I had never seen her wear a bra. Her pudgy hands with ridged, nicotine stained nails grabbed each side of the sink. Her glasses were off already, a habit to wear them anyway as she couldn’t see much. They were so old that the color did not register and after years of smoking they were brittle and cracked behind the ears.
So, she leaned forward into the steam. I stood on the step stool that she had made in the Blind School so I could reach her properly. I tested the water. The first pour from the cup exposed the vulnerability of the pink skull, the tiny bones that held up her head and the rosy shells that were her ears. Then it was a pouring and a smoothing until the whole head was wet. I knew instinctively to cup the ears so water would not stream in and be careful that it didn’t run into her eyes. I had a towel wrapped around her curved shoulders accentuating the dowagers hump.
I never poured the shampoo straight onto her head. The hair was too threadbare and the coldness, I knew from experience could stop your heart. So I squeezed it onto my wet hands and rubbed them together to make foam. Then using the curve of my hand I followed the roundness of her head. My fingers drubbed and massaged finding all the spots that needed to be foamed up. Granny sighed in pleasure. Still I protected the ears. I drubbed and rubbed and circled making the hair stand up in soft peaks like a meringue.
I let Granny decide when the washing was done. The rinsing came next. Scoop the water with the cup and drizzle. Scrape the soap off the head. Repeat, repeat. I already had the kettle with fresh water on the stove behind us. The water in the basin was now grey and sudsy. I rinsed it out with cold water from the tap. Touching Granny on her arm to make her aware that I had the hot kettle, I tempered the water with cold. I had to hurry at this stage because she was now shaking. Pour, scrape, rinse, repeat. “Keep doing it until the hair squeaks.”
When her hair finally ‘squeaked’ all over, Granny lifted her head with quivering jowls towards me. She was frail, her eyes scrunched closed, hands grasping like a child. I unrolled the towel and stretched it over her head, took both ends and twisted them like a sausage loop in front. Then touching her chin, she lifted her head up so I could tuck the end of the towel into the back, at the nape of her neck. It made a makeshift turban. Another towel to dab her eyes- she looked at me in a milky flutter.
“How about a cup of tea, pet, while I comb this out,” reaching for her glasses, Granny looked tired and ready to sit down. I realized how frail and vulnerable she actually was…