My dishwasher of fourteen years washed its last dish. Finally worn out beyond what my husband can reasonably repair, I was left with at least three dishwasher loads stacked on the counter after it finally gave up the ghost. Glancing over the white crusts of milk in the bottom of glasses and streaks of who knows what on bowls and plates, I rolled up my sleeves and sighed.
As I first scrubbed out the sinks and then filled one side with hot water and soap, I reflected there was an art to doing dishes completely lost on the stick-it-in-the-machine generation. To properly do dishes, you have to sort them from least dirty to most greasy, starting with the glasses and working your way to the pans. Tossing the silverware into the suds and letting them soak as you wash is a good idea, but never, ever put a sharp knife in the sink where it will lurk on the bottom, waiting for the moment you swipe your fingers through the bubbles searching for the last cup or serving spoon to bite.
Growing up, there were a lot of fights between my sister and me over who’d carelessly thrown the knife in the dishwater; it was probably one of the reasons the Band-Aids were in the cupboard next to the sink.
When doing the dishes by hand, the water has to be hot, hotter than you can stand it. I remember my grandmother leaning over me, swirling a finger in distain through the bubbles as she gauged the temperature of the water I was using, then carelessly dumping boiling water from the kettle on the stove into the sink. When I complained, she scoffed. When I showed her red, red hands, she laughed and told me to toughen up.
Doing dishes was not for wimps and only pansies wore gloves. Real women didn’t need them or electric mixers or clothes dryers. My great-grandmother used to say you could tell the quality of a housekeeper by the state of her cleaning rags, although I was never sure if that meant good housekeepers had ratty cleaning rags from cleaning all the time or spotless ones because even the rags were clean. From what I remember, her own were worn, often hemmed by hand from clothing scraps, but always clean and fresh and abundantly available, so I’m guessing that’s what she must have meant.
When I was a kid, doing dishes and preparing meals was women’s work. During the occasional treks to Utah from Hawaii to visit my mother’s family, there would be mountains of dishes to wash—no paper plates, napkins, cups, or plastic silverware were ever used, deemed too expensive and wasteful—and as the oldest granddaughter I was expected to help.
My mother and her four sisters all have perfect pitch and would sing in three or five part harmony as they cooked and cleaned, marvelous to hear when you’re eight, ten, or fourteen, but humbling when you’re in college and realized they expect you to sing your mother’s parts in the kitchen at the family Thanksgiving and Christmas parties. The dishes I could do, the singing not so much. My aunts didn’t believe me, no matter how often I claimed talent skips a generation, and made me sing anyway. I was a Frampton, too, they said, and all Framptons sing.
Doing the dishes back then reminds me of being Mom’s taxi service now. It’s one-on-one Mom time to talk with your kids about what’s going on in their lives, to sing loudly no matter how off-key, and to hand down secret family knowledge. One I’ll never forget was the rule never use soap to clean an iron skillet or you’ll ruin the patina; instead you boil water in it and rub the sides and bottom with a wooden spatula to remove the gunk and sanitize it. In a pinch you can mix oil and salt into a paste and use it to scrape the stubborn parts clean, but never soap. There were other lessons, of course, about boys and milk and cows. At the time, the iron skillet info made more sense.
Funny what sticks in your head.
The new dishwasher comes Friday. Until then the old one’s serving as my dish drying rack and the kids are taking turns emptying it and putting the dishes away. To them not much’s changed. But to me, with my hands submersed in suds and memories, I keep thinking back to my mother and other women who stood daily at their kitchen sinks where I stand now. I remember my great-grandmother and consider what she’d say about my new-fangled nylon brushes, fancy glass dish soap dispenser, and scrubbing pad sponges. Like her thoughts on cleaning rags and housekeepers, I wonder what they say about me.
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