Acts of Love
"I see your dishes are all done!"
It's a little joke my mom and I have when she comes to my house. If there are dirty dishes piled up on the counter and in the sink (as there all too often are) she kindly ignores them. But when the kitchen is free of dirty dishes, she says, "I see your dishes are all done!"
Without context, that phrase makes her sound like one of those harpy mothers who show up in bad chick-lit novels and mediocre sitcoms. But it's not that way at all.
After several years of being a married woman and trying to "keep house," I confessed to my mom that I was embarrassed my the near constant state of disarray in my home. I love a clean, orderly space. I can even create one. I just have trouble maintaining it.
At some point, I stopped trying to pretend that I was a domestic diva--at least in front of my mother. Even though she's always kept a clean, neat, and well-organized house, my mom's never been one of those white-glove-test types or one to cast disapproving looks at the stacks of magazines and mail that regularly commandeer my kitchen island and dining room table. Still, I wanted her to be proud of me, to show her that I'd learned something about domesticity from her. Finally, I had to admit that housekeeping just wasn't my main gig.
I think the joke about the dishes started as her way of giving me a pat on the back, of saying kudos on getting the dishes done--something that she knew wasn't always the easiest or highest priority on my list. In those moments, I'm seven-years-old again and she's praising my picture for the school art contest. I don't care if it's the best. I just care that she sees it.
I admire my mom's ability to stick to a schedule, complete a task, focus on what needs to be done. But I've also seen how it forces her to push herself unnecessarily when she's weary and how it makes her feel guilty if she allows things to fall below her usual standard.
She once told me, "I wish I could be more like you. You seem to be able to just let things go. I can't do that." She was referring, of course, to my ability to let dirty dishes stack up in the kitchen, to let paper pile up everywhere, to forgo vacuuming for much too long. And as weird as that sounds, it really was a compliment on what she admired in me: my ability to put myself first sometimes, to choose fun over chores, and to say "I'll do it tomorrow" if I'm too tired to do it today.
After dinner a few nights ago, I loaded the dishwasher and looked at everything left on the counter that either can't go in the machine or just wouldn't fit this time around. In addition to the usual pots and pans, I still had a bunch of plates, bowls, and silverware left over. I thought about just washing the big stuff, but it seemed silly not to do a few extra things while I was at it.
I rinsed half a dozen pieces of silverware, a little metal bouquet, under running water. The sound of forks, spoons, and butter knives clacking together transported me back to the kitchen of my childhood, where all dishes were washed by hand, all the time. Back to that eat-in kitchen with the ceramic-top stove that was once blown out of the wall when our neighbor's ex-wife came crashing through it in her car. Back to the counter tops that old Aunt Martha insisted were much too poorly lit every Thanksgiving. Back to the mint green vinyl chairs with swivel seats and legs with wheels. Back to dinner being served every weekday at 4:30 when Dad got home from the factory. Back to when Monday nights meant swiss steak and mashed potatoes, and Friday nights often meant a pizza box atop the plastic tablecloth.
I looked at my hand holding that silverware and saw my mother's hand. I felt the hard curve of wet metal that she's felt thousands of times. The moment expanded so that I was my mother and she was me. The moment contracted so that all truth and love and acts of kindness were there in that little handful of metal. I finished the dishes and thought to myself, "I see all your dishes are done."