Doing dishes. Standing over the sink with water up to your elbows is an image from the 1950’s as common as today's bent elbows with a cell phone pressed against ears. Though the first mechanical dishwashing device was developed 100 years earlier, the affordable, practical version was just beginning to enter the kitchens of the Elvis Presley years. In most homes, children were the dishwashers.
It was a right of passage for little kids. We had no idea how soapy water could ever turn into drudgery when we were first trusted with sharp knives and fragile glasses. The young child who sometimes got to stand on a stool and chase suds with wooden spoons could only dream of the time when they would be grown up enough to take over the sink without supervision.
Doing dishes might have turned sour over time, but it gave us one of life’s great lessons. Play is only fun when we are pushing at the edges of our possibilities. Routine will often change pleasure into discontent over time.
That feeling was surely at the root of the inevitable bickering between brothers and sisters. It was all part of washing and drying the pile of dinner dishes and yet there was a gift in the strife. I once read we learn much about how we fit into the world by our interactions with our siblings. In this daily chore requiring cooperation, many lessons unfolded for me. I learned how to let the taunts and teases pass by. I became skilled at going into a place of serenity that drove my sister crazy… and that surely was part of the reward.
Doing the dishes was not limited to your own pots and pans. Hanging out with your friends often included helping with this everyday task, and that was always a bit of adventure. Some dried and put away. Others let the air do that job. Rinsing might happen under a constantly running faucet, in a pan with clean water, dish-by-dish or all at once, with steaming hot water or hand-friendly temperatures. Washing often took place in a sink of sudsy water, but I remember use bar soap on a dish rag. Some families soaked. Others didn’t leave the kitchen till it was clean.
Sharing a job with my friends that was as common to our lives as milk on Cheerios, I learned there wasn’t just one way to take care of life’s chores and challenges.
Notes along the way... Jeanne McElvaney
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