The Dishwashing Ritual

There wasn’t anything else to do about it except to fill the sink with hot soapy water and start washing the accumulated dishes.  After several days of sporatic starts the control panel on the relatively young dishwaster was dark and no amount of trickery from me would coax the start button to initate a wash cycle.

I wasn’t too unhappy about the prospect of washing the dishes, in fact I almost looked forward to the chore. I learned to wash dishes while standing on a low stool next to my maternal grandmother.  She taught me the methodology of preparing and washing dishes; she washed dishes three times a day for everyday of her adult life.  There was no machine to load and walk away from and return to later to retrieve sparkling dishes. She had two enamel washpans, a farm house sink, a dish drainer, and cup towel. And in the summer time, me.

After the table was cleared and the plates scraped (if needed) into the trash she would fill one pan with hot, soapy water and the other pan would be placed in the sink to be filled with cool water.  First in the water were the drinking glasses and maybe the tea pitcher. She would wash and I would rinse and under her careful eye put the glassses in the drainer. Next would be the plates with silverware on top with our final round being the serving dishes and pots and pans.  There was no other order and she taught me well.  After we finished the rinse water was released into the sink and I dried the pan. She would carefully carry the wash pan out to a place away from the house and empty it to avoid any tiny pieces of food from going down the drain of the farm house with sensitive plumbing.

But there was more to this ritual that just washing dishes.  There was talk.  What did we talk about?  I don’t remember, but I know that we discussed many things.  Stories of her girlhood and of my grandfather building their house around a small existing house on their property.  Stories of her family and our family tree.  Talk of the weather and getting the clothes in from the clothesline before it rained.  Talk of the watermelon chilling in the refrigerator. Talk of the flowers I was going to clip that afternoon for a bouquet to go in her large vase.  Talk.

When my mother was there the routine changed just a bit.  My grandmother still washed, my mother rinsed and I dried as the dishes were put in the drainer.  Again, under the careful supervision of both women.  And, there was talk.  This time it was adult talk and I remember discussions of my mother’s friends and where they were at that time.  How certain people were related to other people and the news from town that my grandfather had brought home at lunch (he worked in the Post Office and knew every tid bit of gossip and community knews).

As I stare at the soapy water I remember those treasured moments vividly and with contentment.  I also remember washing dishes at another sink with the woman who would be my mother-in-law for many years.  The routine was the same, she washed and I rinsed and dried.  We stared out the window at the field of oats visible across the yard while we washed and talked.  She shared stories of her girlhood there on that same property, stories of her children, and much practical advice that she had garnered from her years of life.  We talked about my children and their cousins, remembering the past gatherings and planning for future ones.  Sewing projects and recipes were also part of our conversations. We talked. I enjoyed those times while the menfolk were elsewhere and we worked together washing dishes.

I dip my hands into the water and start the methodical process of washing while the memories of other sinks full of dirty dishes and hot, soapy water surround me.  The continuity of life and the importance of talk.


3 thoughts on “The Dishwashing Ritual

  1. What beautiful memories this brings back. We had those same rituals. I can picture the scene vividly, for you from your description, and for me from my similar experience. I do recall my disbelief when I learned in South Africa that they do not rinse the dishes–they just dry them right from the soapy dishpan. I could not adapt to that custom, even though I managed a lot of other ones in the culture. 🙂


  2. Yes, washing dishes the old fashion way is disappearing, but that time with my mother and mother-in-law was precious – mostly due to the long talks. Great post.


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