My grandmother was nearly eighty when she had her first foot massage. I think this is right. I mean, obviously I wasn’t around for most of those years, so I couldn’t say for certain. Still she looked so surprised as I rubbed my mom’s feet when we were all gathered at my grandparent’s house. My grandfather had died in his sleep a few days before and shocked us all. My mother’s children arrived from our various points on the map – all of us except my eldest sister, too ill to travel and living in a care in the desert. My other sister came without her family; the cost too prohibitive for six of them to fly from the east coast. I was lucky because I had a good job in a nonprofit and a great boss who let me leave at short notice.
After the funeral, where my grandfather’s sons and a couple of other ranch owners from the area lowered the casket into the ground with lariats, we went back to the family ranch. It’s in the middle of nowhere in eastern New Mexico, forty-five minutes from the nearest place to buy groceries. My cell phone didn’t work, and so I had a colleague call me from LA to go over what was happening at work. I sat downstairs in the den area that is a second living room next to the spare room; although, by then it was usually reserved for my grandmother’s quilt frame. I wrote under the lamp that I loved as a child. It has a picture of a horse in the shade. It’s a real photograph that looks black and white until you turn on the light, and the oval screen is filled with a bright blue sky, black horse, and green trees. I always liked the picture better when the light was off. It was more mysterious. You didn’t know anything about that horse – it could be wild, it could be yours.
My colleague and I spent an hour going through e-mails. I wanted to be sure that work functioned without me, as I asked my boss for more time. Three weeks was a long time for me to be away; I would use all vacation days and dip into my sick leave. I was necessary, integral to the team, or at least to my boss, but I needed to be with my family. They needed me.
It was my sister who first got me into foot rubs. Back then, at fifteen, I was much too uptight and shy about what might be very smelly feet to let anyone else touch mine. My sister was different. Who cares what she thought about my foot smell? Hers weren’t so great. At the end of our days, waitressing for her and school for me, both of us in unforgiving shoes, we would sit on the couch feet plopped on each other’s laps. We talked about whatever was on our minds. This ritual let us endure our daily indignities.
In the ranch house, overrun with family, after the plates of fried squash, roast beef, turkey, sausages, several different casseroles, corn on the cob, salad with five different dressings, three kinds of pie and two cobblers were put away and all the dishes washed or loaded into the dishwasher, the women finally joined the men in the living room. My mother, suddenly without a father, was angry that he didn’t wait for her to see him one last time. The toll of the day, the drive to and from the church, walking across the uneven, dry ground to the grave with the November cold cutting through our too-thin coats had exhausted my mother. She asked me to do her feet, which of course, I did. At that moment, I would have done anything for her. Besides, the action kept my hands busy and my mind off the fact I could never ask my grandfather why he really ran away at age ten. Well, ten is when he ran away for good. I think he started at age seven but I am not sure, I didn’t ask.
After my mom, I did my sister’s feet. Then I asked my grandmother if she wanted me to rub hers. The men had gone off somewhere outdoors, to feed or mend a fence or something. She looked at me with embarrassment, “Oh, law! You don’t need to do that.” But I slipped her shoes off and cradled her feet in my lap. All nerves end in the feet, I heard once. I don’t know if it’s true, but I told her that. She had a permanent bow that reflected her years of wearing high heels to town and church. She had calluses on her heels and next to her big toe. She was wearing slim white socks, and I took them off. Her joints stood out prominently, her skin was loose and thin across them. I ran my hands over her arches and rough spots and asked her questions. She told me about her mother who died the same year that she was giving birth to my uncle, the eldest of her children. My great-grandmother was fifty and died from complications due to childbirth. “She never got to retire, I guess,” my grandmother joked. I flexed her toes, pressed them into my palms. I wondered if she had ever done this for herself after working from sunrise on this ranch.
She told me that my grandfather was “the most handsomest man” she had ever seen. They met at a dance when she was seventeen. He had lovely, curly, black hair. She found out later that his sister had curled it for the dance. I had only ever known him with a thick head of white hair. I was appalled by how little I knew. They had both come with other people to the dance, but he found out who she was and came calling a few days later. They dated for two months and then eloped. She said she knew her father wouldn’t let her get married at seventeen because when her older sister showed up with her betrothed, my great-grandfather just turned to his wife, “She eighteen?” My grandparents married in secret, but two of her brothers saw the newspaper announcement and were going to tell their father, so she had to come clean. They were a few weeks shy of their sixtieth wedding anniversary when my grandfather died. He had a habit of buying cards in advance and stashing them until the occasion came around. She had looked for the anniversary card that must be somewhere hidden away but couldn’t find it. We were quiet while she talked, my hands holding on to her, as I tried to soak her words into me.
My grandmother is gone now too, and I miss her all the time. Before she died, every time I visited, I’d ask her if she wanted me to rub her feet. She’d laugh a little, tell me I didn’t have to, all the while taking off her shoes. I loved to do that for her, a little pampering, the power of touch, and a chance to hear her stories.