Dish Towel Lessons

Sometimes it takes an essay to remember…

Here’s to Mother’s Day and Washing Dishes

Growing up, my assigned chore was drying dishes my mother washed.  She kept up a constant training session, “Do not put wet dishes into the cupboard.  I told you to dry, really dry the inside of the glasses.  Stop banging the dishes, they’ll break.  Get a new towel when it is wet,” and so on. 

I got my professional drying license at parties that Uncle Dave and Aunt Alice hosted for our large extended family each holiday.  While the rest of the family sat around the post-feast table laughing at old stories, my mother snuck away to the kitchen to wash the mounds of dishes…by herself.  It made me angry that she didn’t participate in the relaxed table banter, and that no-one got up to help my mother.

I often wandered into the kitchen to ask, “Why don’t you come back for dessert?”

“Oh, this won’t take long.  You don’t understand.  When I came to live with Uncle Dave, he told me it was my job to do the dishes.  So that’s why I do it.”

“Mom, that was years ago.  You shouldn’t have to do all of Uncle Dave’s dishes now.  Besides, why don’t the others help?”

“Janie, when you’re the youngest of nine children, you learn to do whatever the older kids say you have to do.  This is simply my job.  It’s okay.  You are welcome to stay and dry.”

Most times I drifted off to find my cousins. 

By junior high school, a small inner voice got louder, “Pick up a towel and help.”  I thought maybe my added presence at the sink would encourage my aunts (God forbid uncles!) to join the dish-party.  That didn’t happen.

What did happen was that I got to watch my mother wash Uncle Dave and Aunt Alice’s delicate pink-flowered china.  She took special care of it as she kept up her training patter, this time about washing. 

“Make sure you always use hot water!  Rinse all dishes first.  Let the pots soak for a while.  Always wash in sudsy water and start with the silver; glasses are second, plates next, and then serving dishes.  Save the pots for last.  Rinse in hot water before setting them to dry.”

I listened to a litany of directives like Robert’s Rules of Order.  I thought of them as Grace’s Ridiculous Rules for Washing Freakin’ Dishes! 

After years of drying dishes with my mom, I slowly started to see the love that Mom put into that chore.  I realized that it got her away from the table teasing she had to endure from her older siblings.  This was her domain.  Her place in the family.  Far from being the low estate I thought it brought, it gave her status.  She was the one who accepted family as the imperfect dynamic it is.  The glistening china at the end of the meal meant all-is-well.  And she was happy to collect the simple “Thanks Gracie” that she got from my aunts (God forbid uncles!). 

I have been tutored by the best. And best of all, I inherited my aunt’s gorgeous pink-flowered china that I wash with the love and care that my mother taught.