Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Everything in the Kitchen Sink

A girl needs to be careful when she takes on the living and care of a life.
Oddly enough, she may be thirty-five-plus-six and moving along at a clip when she realizes this fact.


A girl could stand to be warned at the outset that the things she likes might be hers to bear more often than not all on her own, and though they bring her joy, they can also drain her cup dry if she gazes too long at the prospect.


I have a mental image of my 70-year-old grandmother standing at my mother's kitchen sink, elbow-deep in suds, clean dishes stacked in the dry side waiting for a rinse while the stack of dirty plates, glasses, and flatware slowly diminishes. It never occurred to me at the age of 15 that she had been doing that very thing for decades, or that she might wish she were doing something else at that moment. I failed to realize the probable pain in her lower back and the ache between her shoulder blades; didn't know of the dry skin and flaked fingernails from exposure to soap and hot water. I just knew she made a mean potato salad and fried chicken to die for, and that she wouldn't rest until the kitchen was cleaned up. I helped, darting about in my teenage way, putting condiments in the fridge, bringing dirty dishes to the sink, wrapping the last of the rice and gravy and finding space to stack them in the refrigerator. I may have even wiped the table. My cursory jobs done, I would have escaped to the television or(more likely)my latest read of young adult fiction while Grandma stood at that sink for another twenty or thirty minutes, removing the traces of crumb and oil and setting things to rights in my mom's kitchen.


This image haunts me as I approach the kitchen near-midnight after having friends over for the afternoon. We had tea and a host of small treats to attend it; four porcelain pots, 8 cups-and-saucers, 8 or more plates and spoons and then the serving dishes--platters, plates, creamers and pitchers, along with the food processor and cutting boards, knives, mixing bowls, and baking trays; all greet me as reminders of the fun afternoon chatting and laughing with friends. Sounds of the movie the girls are watching drift in from the adjacent family room, but as I begin putting nacho cheese sauce in a container after the late-night snacking session, my oldest daughter flits in on tiptoe and begins unloading the dishwasher.


I smile, somewhat amused at this oddity as I help put skillets and glasses, whisks and platters in their places. She bends over the silverware, actually sorting the pieces into their little holders and chatting gaily with me about how tea parties were invented by people with STAFF for people who also had STAFF--a mild protest of the immensity of the cleanup--as the work gets done. She finishes the sorting and I begin loading the second of what will be three loads of post-tea-party washes. And it hits me, this image of Grandma at the kitchen sink.

I love my kids and their friends. I love my friends. I enjoy using my pretty things and making memories in beautiful surroundings, but this is work. So much of love IS work. And I see it for what it is. My grandma stood at that sink so my mom wouldn't come home from work to a dirty kitchen and need to clean up before preparing supper. She was reinforcing her own habits of years, though. Raising four children in difficult circumstances, she had to make the most of meager resources all too often in order to provide nourishment and sustenance to her husband and family. She owned--commanded--the kitchen in that old house we used to visit, with its chipped formica counters and scary stove, slightly-askew cabinets and large porcelain sink. It was used, and in that use, loved, and she served us and the kitchen nearly equally as she stood at that sink and stove going through the all-too-familiar ritual of making milk gravy and buttermilk biscuits or frying chicken and stirring up her amazing potato salad.

Brides-to-be pick out china, crystal, and linens, glibly registering for all the paraphernalia that makes setting up a home easy and beautiful, completely oblivious to the fact that they are essentially pledging to those beautiful things a lifetime of conscious care and handling. Just as the extra care they will eventually put into preparing special meals for wonderful times with the people they love will help build happy lifetimes, it will also invoke a bit of loneliness as the kitchen's filling the heart-of-the-home means a woman stands in there a whole lot of the time by herself with her thoughts and memories.

As a young mom of three little girls, I would occasionally stand them on chairs at the soap-filled sink, tuck and tie the aprons around the tiny waists, and enjoy hearing them giggle as they "washed" and rinsed the plastic plates and cups that are the hard-working finery of families with small kids. 

Now getting them to help in the kitchen is a treat, and they can bake and chop and braise and saute better than I ever did at 15, but the cleanup generally lands on my shoulders, as it will for years to come.

I have a photograph somewhere of myself and my two nearest-in-age cousins standing at the sink in my other grandmother's kitchen; I was in college so they were both in high school, and we were washing dishes after one of the very last full-family gatherings we had in that house. We enjoyed the time to visit, I'm sure, but what sticks in my mind now is the ages we were; I could put my three girls at that sink now and have the same scenario, different faces. The years fly and we are held to this earth in part by the rituals of living--and the kitchen certainly centers in that grounding. I know in a few years I will cook for two and clean up for two and wait impatiently for the days when they can all come home and make huge messes and we can clean up together...and so the cycle continues. Young bride, mother-to-be, mom with a toddler playing in soap bubbles, children doing chores alongside mom, teenagers cooking and experimenting and helping when they want to--in their own way--and then leaving...never knowing as they spread their wings and buy pretty things that they are committing to years at the kitchen sink. Mostly alone.

Meanwhile grown-up women haunt thrift stores and antique shops searching for bits and pieces of the memories they hold from their childhoods. I have so much that reminds me of this grandmother or that aunt or a day we spent together doing something fun as a family. The memories associated with these things keep me company as I wash and rinse and dry and put away very carefully.


At the end of this long day, after my daughter has returned to her sisters, movie, and friend in the family room,  I hit "start" on the dishwasher, rinse out the sink, wipe down the stove, and turn off the light. Tired but happy, maybe with a tear running down one cheek. The soap bubbles drift and pop into the air like laughter fading, and I remember the joys of today, looking ahead to many, many, many more. My cup is certainly not dry; in fact, it is running over.
Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;
    you make my lot secure.
 The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
    surely I have a delightful inheritance.
Psalm 16:5-6