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.


The Watermelon

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There’s something so refreshing about a bite of ice-cold watermelon on a hot afternoon.

Recently I bought a small watermelon to chill and slice.  The stores market them as “personal size” melons which always makes me smile, but they are ideal for just one person to eat over a few days. It had been a while since I bought a whole melon, but decided it was ridiculous to pay the price of an already sliced bowl of watermelon when it would only take a few minutes to cut up the small personal size melon. As I cut into it and the juice spread rapidly over the cutting board I had a flash flood of memories of summer watermelon cuttings and also the quick memory of why we always cut them outside on a nice stack of newspapers!

As I sliced I remembered my grandfather’s large sun-browned fingers and how expertly he could thump a watermelon to select the best choice.  He knew exactly the right thump and no one ever argued with him. The melon would be brought home and stored in the old refrigerator in what was called the utility room of their house.  Late afternoon when the heat and humidity was at its finest the melon and a large butcher knife would be taken outside to the concrete table in the backyard.  There, on the stack of newspapers, the melon would yield its red or yellow fruit.

The adults offered plates and forks as well as a shaker of salt.  However, the kids always declined all offers. I preferred to bite into the slice and knaw all the way to the rind with juice running down my chin and arms onto my clothes. I knew I would suffer a lecture from my mother about the stains on the clothing, but that would be later.  For now it was serious eating on the cool, sweet watermelon.  Lasting memories were created on those afternoons under the pine trees.

I remember in particular one round, very dark green watermelon that my grandfather brought in one day.  It was still warm from the field and he stated that he got it from a certain farmer and had picked it from the field.  As a child I assumed that the farmer was there and told my grandfather to help himself to a fresh melon. It had the darkest yellow meat and as I remember it was the best watermelon I ever ate.  When I mentioned this particular melon to my father many years later Daddy chuckled and shared that the adults had all suspected that the melon was not a gift from the farmer (as I had assumed), but that it had been plucked from the field when no one was looking.  Stolen!