On Saturday mornings, when I didn’t have high school speech tournaments, I would ride my bike to Grandma’s house, wash her hair, set it in pin curls, dry, and style it. I loved this ritual. It was my time with Grandma and a chance to show her my love.
Her hair was gorgeous, pure white, fine, and soft as kitten fur. She kept it short, only a few inches long, but rolling thin strips into curls and securing each with two bobby pins took a while. Once every strand was contained, she sat under her bonnet hair dryer; I would check every 10-15 minutes until it was dry. To check, I’d unpin a curl, unroll it to check for moisture, and re-roll it if it was damp. When her hair was dry, I would gently unpin each curl and run my fingers through it. Grandma didn’t have a lot of patience for my playing with her hair, but she did love the freedom of the pins being removed. When all the curls were loose, I would gently brush and style her hair. Sometimes she had me secure it with hairspray. Other times she just kept it free.
On one Saturday, I was moving a little slowly when Grandma called. Mom burst into my room and commanded “Get up. Grandma needs you. Take the car.” Half-awake I replied, “I’m coming. Just a few minutes. All I have to do this morning is wash Grandma’s hair. I’m just a little tired. Mom.” “She needs you now! There’s been an accident. She’s cut herself.” I leapt out of bed and threw clothes on as fast as I could. “Take the car”, mom demanded, throwing the keys to me. I drove the 6 blocks to Grandma’s house as fast as I could. The 3 minutes it took to get there were interminable. I parked along the side of the house, leapt the curb, ran up the steps, and burst through the door. I heard water running in the kitchen sink. “Grandma, I’m here.” When I entered the kitchen, there was blood from the table across the floor to the sink, a lot of blood. Grandma was holding her left hand under the faucet. What looked like an impossible amount of bright red blood flowing into the water stream from the deep gash between her thumb and index finger. “I was cutting a potato and the knife slipped. “Ok” I said. “Let’s wash it out with soap and I’ll get a towel.” “I feel woozy, Grandma said. She looked pale and as if she might faint. I gently washed her hand and quickly packed a clean washcloth against the wound, then wrapped her hand and wrist in a kitchen towel. “Ok. That looks deep. We need to go to the hospital. I think you need stitches. Do you think you can walk?”, I asked. “Yes” she replied weakly. We slowly walked through the house, my arms around her waist, her right arm around my shoulder, her injured hand against her chest. Slowly we moved across the living room, out the door, down the steps, across the street. The walk seemed to take so long, and blood was seeping through the hand towel. I gently helped Grandma into the passenger seat. “Lean back, close your eyes, and just rest”, I said as I sprinted around the car and jumped into the driver’s seat.
Grandma had never learned to drive and she was a skittish passenger (at least with me). I drove carefully to the hospital, less than 5 minutes away, (the beauty of living in such a small town), cooing and soothing Grandma as I drove. I pulled up to the entrance, told Grandma I would be right back, and dashed to the door. Two Sisters of Mercy in mid-calf white habits with short white veils that held their hair back from their foreheads were at the front desk. “Please help me. My Grandma cut her hand and it’s bleeding pretty badly.” One nun grabbed a wheelchair while the other grabbed the phone. We got Grandma out of the car and the nun rolled her straight to an operating room. They got Grandma onto a gurney and a doctor came in immediately. “You should leave, young lady”, he said. “Please let her stay”, Grandma said. “Come over here and hold my other hand”, she demanded firmly. I did. She had bled quite a bit on the drive and the towels were bloody. “Let’s see what we have here”, the doctor said as he unwrapped the towel and washcloth. “You wrapped this well”, he said. “See, it’s starting to clot off a bit, but this is deep and will need stitches. It doesn’t look like she cut anything major, so I’m going to clean this with antiseptic, give her a couple shots to numb the area, then put in several stitches.” Grandma lay with her eyes closed as the doctor flooded the wound with antiseptic. When he picked up what looked like an impossibly large needle, I noticed the room starting to get dark; the light on Grandma’s hand was impossibly bright. I noticed black spots in my peripheral vision. One on the nuns gently put her hands on my shoulders and directed me to a chair. I sat heavily, feeling dizzy. I heard a small crack and smelled a pungent aroma just under my nose. “Smelling salts”, she said quietly in my ear, “You looked a little dizzy. Just put your head down and breathe calmly. This happens. You managed the crisis, now your body is reacting to the shock. Just breathe.”
I didn’t pass out. Grandma got stitches and a white bandage around her hand and wrist with instructions for wound care and rest.
We drove home quietly, content that the crisis was over. I got Grandma into the house and into a chair in the living room, covered her with a blanket, called my mom to let her know what had happened, and cleaned the kitchen.
Grandma told me she had been planning to make potato soup, so I cut the onions and celery she had on the table, and the potatoes she had already peeled and placed in a bowl of water, careful not to cut toward my hand. I even made rivels (flour, eggs, and salt) to boil on top.
I learned a lot in that short morning. I learned I’m good in a crisis; I learned I’m not so good with blood, and maybe most valuable, I learned a healthy respect for vegetables, especially potatoes. I learned to use a cutting board to cut vegetables and never to hold a potato and cut toward my hand. I also learned that with Grandma’s guidance, I make a mean potato soup. We decided to wait to wash her hair until the next day.
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