Category Archives: sisters

Aunt Bette and the Bed Bath

I’ve been thinking about my late mother-in-law lately. This piece is something I wrote many years ago about a special moment in my life, near the end of hers.


By the time we all understood that my mother-in-law was failing, it was too late to talk much about it with her. Marilyn had lost her words. She would often point in frustration while everyone guessed what she was trying to say. Sometimes she could offer a few words, but they were never the right ones. Marilyn was losing her battle with cancer, and so her older sister Bette came north from her home in San Diego to give moral support and comfort. Marilyn was 71 and Bette was 75—they had been known as the Burns girls back in Bangor, Maine where they grew up.  Although my father-in-law doted on Marilyn, there are some things a husband just cannot do. Bette decided Marilyn needed some pampering, and I was enlisted to help in this maneuver. The womenfolk were taking over.

Bette started off by asking Marilyn if she would like a bath. When Marilyn nodded in agreement, Bette asked if she would prefer a tub bath or a bed bath. We watched as she mouthed the words, “bed bath.”  Bette looked at me and said, “We have to make a trip to the drugstore. I know just what we need.”

As we drove to the store, Bette began ticking off on her fingers all the things we would have to shop for. “When was the last time you did this?” I asked her. She thought a moment and answered, “Oh, it must have been in the ’40s. But you never forget how. We’ll need a couple of tubs, some plastic sheeting, sponges, and some nice scented bubble bath, and a couple of other things.”  When we arrived at the store, Bette led the charge, commandeering a cart and checking every aisle.  We could not find everything right away, so Bette tracked down a young man in a green vest whose nametag identified him as Carlos. “Hello, Carlos,” Bette smiled at him. ” Will you help us find a few things?”  Bette was clearly in charge now, and poor Carlos was unable to duck out on us until our cart was full. At the checkout counter, Bette thanked our patient helper Carlos, (“Thank you, deah”) in her best New England accent.

Back at the house, we sprang into action—donning aprons and filling the tubs, adding some lavender-scented bubble bath to the comfortably warm water. As we walked into the bedroom where Marilyn waited for us, Bette gave me a look that I understood to mean: this will be hard, but we have to keep the mood light—and above all, we can’t let Marilyn see us cry. Using the childhood nickname that no one else would think of using, Bette urged her little sister Mimi to be a good girl and roll onto her side. Watching the two of them was like seeing the girls they used to be, when they were playmates and confidants, before husbands and children and illness and loss.

We began bathing Marilyn’s hands and arms, the warm water filling the room with the calming scent of lavender. She had always been a private person, and the intimacy of this moment and her vulnerability were unsettling. I found myself unable to keep the tears at bay and left the room frequently to refill the tubs or run more hot water—unnecessary tasks that allowed me to regain my composure and steel myself. Bette, however, never left the room and never stopped her gentle patter. We bathed Marilyn’s feet and noticed that that they really needed some attention.  I found a pair of nail scissors and a small brush and gave Marilyn a poor approximation of a pedicure, while Bette continued speaking sweetly to her sister as she gently bathed her and used a soft towel to pat her fragile skin dry.  Even though words often failed Marilyn now, she murmured her appreciation and smiled as we pampered her.

Once the bath was finished, we massaged lavender lotion on her arms and legs, the soothing scent working into her papery skin.  We kept up a little conversation, calling each other Olga and Helga, keeping things light, keeping our hearts from breaking right then as we cared for this woman we loved —cared for her like a baby. Her essence was still inside, even as she began to drift away a little more each day.

Marilyn was a professional woman, an educator, and she had a sense of who she was and how she fit into the world. Never at a loss for words, never in doubt—I think I only saw her cry twice in all the years I knew her.  And now, she was always at a loss for words and her clothes hung on her like sacks and she seemed lost and unsure. I think she was afraid, and I had never seen her afraid before.

When the bath was over, Bette helped Marilyn into a kitten-soft robe that felt nice against her skin. We helped her to her feet, and with robe and slippers in place, she was ready to go sit up with the menfolk in the other room.  Before she walked out of her sick room, Marilyn gave her blonde wig a pat, and I assured her it looked fine.  One more smoothing touch to the wig, and she walked slowly to her chair, her arm linked with Bette’s. She carried the scent of lavender with her; graceful and somehow strong despite the strength she lost and continued to lose.

Bette taught me an important lesson, and not just how to give a bed bath. Despite age and time and life’s complexities, the bond between sisters is stronger than anything else. When everything is stripped away and time is forgotten, the older sister takes care of the younger sister. Take my hand when we cross the street. Don’t catch cold. Would you like a lovely bath? Here, let me help you, dear.

The Sister card

April 9, 2022 My sister’s birthday. Earlier this year, I went through the big box full of my sister’s documents and mementos. I found the card we’d exchanged over several years. I thought I’d lost it or misplaced it, so this was a wonderful surprise. I only wish we’d been able to send it toContinue Reading

On the occasion of my sister’s birthday

It’s April 9th, my sister’s birthday. In what has become an annual tradition–for now anyway–I’m re-posting this edited version. Five years ago, in 2014, I was out of town at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and missed being here for her birthday. So I put together something special to make up for being away, becauseContinue ReadingContinue Reading

Days of Our Lives

I wrote this last year. Today would’ve been my sister’s 68th birthday: She was born on 4/9/49–a fact that always made her birthday seem more special. She is missed terribly by all who knew her. There’s an empty place at the table on this occasion, and all others when her friends or the family–whichever partsContinue Reading

Aunt Augusta’s Chair

 An excerpt from my book, in which a special chair follows our family through many transitions. This is from one of the “artifact” chapters that are woven into the story of the fire’s aftermath. There is only one black and white photo in the book, but there are so many more… I first saw thisContinue Reading

First Birthday

  My sister’s birthday is coming up in April. This will be the first time in over sixty years that I will not buy a card, select a gift, or have dinner with her. No candles, no cake, no celebration. The following month, in May, I will observe the first anniversary of her death—and thenContinue Reading

October: It’s almost over

Don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out, October. Ever since 1989 and the Loma Prieta earthquake, followed two years later by the Oakland Hills firestorm, I have not been a fan of October. Those two major disasters in two years leave me feeling uneasy the moment I flip the calendar fromContinue Reading

A tribute to my sister

C.J. Hirschfield–friend, columnist, and Executive Director of Oakland’s beloved Children’s Fairyland–wrote this beautiful tribute to my sister Susie. Delighted to be sharing it with friends, family, and the community.   A Tribute to Susie   In this picture, she’s cutting the cake at my 25th anniversary party. It’s not the first time she’d stepped upContinue Reading

Susie Moments

We held a celebration of my sister’s life a couple of weeks ago. Several of us spoke–family and friends–and this is what I read. So many of you have expressed your shock and grief over Susie’s passing, and have talked about the ways to keep her memory alive. I have a few suggestions. If youContinue Reading


I wrote this in March, 2015. Before…   The lobby smells like tragedy and sickness today. I look around to see if there are any signs of an accident of a personal nature—orange cones, a bucket and mop, yellow tape—but there is no sign of such a thing. The uniformed guy behind the desk doesn’tContinue Reading