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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Doing Dishes

My grandmother had a saying: "Wishes don't wash dishes" - by which she meant that, if you really wanted something, better roll up your sleeves and get your hands into some hot water.

Were she alive today, I might alter that saying just a bit: "Washing dishes can bring wishes" - by which I mean that there is something about washing dishes that is meditative which can inspire wishes.

I'm not just talking about the wish that all the dishes would be done sooner - that some wonderful Sabrina witch person would come in, twinkle her nose and finish the job magically.

Although, there is that.

I'm talking about the magic that happens in the midst of washing dishes where you suddenly find yourself in the midst of a memory, or a thought or new idea, or a song, or a prayer.

I especially love the magic that happens while washing great mounds of dishes after a holiday or birthday or special family event.

It's all about women in the kitchen, one with her hands in hot, soapy water, another with a dish towel in her hand, someone else scraping and organizing plates, glasses and utensils, and, perhaps, yet another woman putting everything away in their right place.

This past weekend, I traveled up to Boston for a surprise birthday party for my dear friend Lois who turned 80 last month. I think Lois was as surprised as anyone that she is now 80 years old. She certainly doesn't look it.

I asked her how it feels to be 80 - a question dear friends of long standing can ask each other without sounding like being in the midst of an interview with Katie Couric.

Lois thought for a moment - as is her way - and said, "Really, except for a few more aches and pains in the morning, I feel no different than when I was 60."

Eighty is the new sixty.

Gives me hope.

Her beloved spouse Sheri was also surprised by the party which delighted me because no one usually gets anything past Sheri.

Not no one. Not no how. Not ever.

Except this time. Ha!

That was because our dear friend and host for the celebration dinner, Penny, and I were positively scrupulous about our planning. Neither one of us dared call either Sheri or Lois that week for fear that we'd say something - in a certain way, with a certain tone - and Sheri would pick up on it.

It's not that we couldn't trust Sheri with our little secret. We most certainly could. It's that we really wanted to surprise Sheri, too.

Actually, there was a surprise within a surprise. The first was the party itself, which included more mutual friends, Michael and David and John.

They were the first to greet and surprise Lois and Sheri. And then, after a few moments, I came down the back stairs into the kitchen.

For as long as I live, I will never forget the mouth-open, momentary confused look on both their faces as I entered the room.

It. Was. Absolutely. Priceless.

It made the whole 8 hour trip - from DE to NJ by car and NJ to Boston by train and back again in a 72 hour period of time - worth it.

Oh, and then there was the food. O.M.G.!!! The food!

You have to understand. Penny is Greek. That's a lot like being Italian or Portuguese but the food is even more exquisite and abundant - if you can imagine. If you can't then you should stop reading right now.

I don't think there is a word in the Mediterranean for "enough". If there is, it probably translates to "more". Or, maybe, "abundance".

There were two of everything: Two appetizers (as if we needed it with the glorious fragrance in her kitchen) - a cheesy bread thingy sliced into small, individual rounds, and water chestnuts wrapped in bacon and covered with a sweet sauce that was baked in the oven for 45 minutes.

There were two home made "bunt breads" which we tore off in great pieces and devoured. Good lord, it was so tasty! You didn't even need butter, but of course, I slathered my piece(s) with the creamy-sweet stuff. See also: Mediterranean for "enough".

There were two veggies: An amazing carrot puree and a huge pan of potatoes and cauliflower which were baked with a creamy-cheesy sauce.

Oh, and an equally huge pan of noodles that were also baked with a a creamy-cheesy sauce.

And, of course, two main courses: A shrimp dish with lots of garlic, wine, fresh tomato and feta cheese, and four - count 'em four - pork rolls cooked in a plum sauce. (Mind you, there were only seven of us at the table.)

Dessert? Of course. There was a home made raspberry birthday cake, along with some home made very light, lacy cookies with almonds. While we were scoffing that down with our coffee or tea, Penny also opened two boxes of chocolates - a Whitman Sampler and a box of Truffles.

You know. Lest we should all starve and waste away.

The dinner party was scheduled for 3 PM. We ate around 5 PM. Everyone left around 8 or so.  And then, it was time to do the dishes.

Penny and I worked in the kitchen until 10:45 PM. Mind you, that was under constant complaint from Penny who kept insisting that I go to bed - or "go write something" - and leave her with the clean up.

No. Way. In. Hell.

I must say that we had a delightful time. I can't tell you what we talked about, exactly. Oh, I remember a conversation about church - Penny frets over her Greek Orthodox Church which "only" has about 150 people in the pews of a Sunday. That's less than a third of her memories of the church of her childhood.

"What can we do to bring people back to church?" That was the question underneath our conversations about church. That seems to be a question being asked across all of Western Christendom, so it was not an unfamiliar conversation.

As we alternately talked and listened to each other, my mind would occasionally drift back to my grandmother's kitchen which looked an awful lot like Penny's. Not as modern, of course. No garbage disposal. No dishwasher. But, she, too, had two ovens. And, a HUGE sink.

It was in that kitchen that I learned a great deal about what it meant to be a woman. Not the role that society foists upon us. I'm talking about the inner stuff of relationships and love and family and a way to view the world and God and Jesus and faith and prayer and hymns and justice and peace and service.

My grandmother would often sing as she washed dishes - she had a beautiful voice - and so I learned some of the songs from Portugal and some of the hymns she sang as a child which we continued to sing in our small immigrant neighborhood church.

She would also tell stories from her childhood, her arms elbow-deep in hot, soapy water, while we listened as we waited like midwives to be passed a plate or a pot to wipe dry and pass on to another person who was waiting to put them away.

It was magical and mysterious to me how a great mound of plates and piles of glasses and utensils and pots would slowly disappear. I suspect that's because we weren't really watching them. The eyes of our minds and hearts would be looking at the picture she was drawing with her words. The ears of our souls were being carried away on the sound of her beautiful voice singing the songs of her youth and her faith and her country.

It occurred to me, as I was standing in Penny's kitchen, that I think my sexual orientation - along with my perspective on how the world works - became shaped and formed in my grandmother's kitchen.

Some may "blame" sexual orientation on "nature". Others, on "nurture".

I think it was the dishes. (Wouldn't you just love to see what the folks from Exodus will do with that one!)

I don't hate men. I'm quite fond of many men and am blessed to have a few very, very dear male friends who will forever have a piece of my heart. And yes, many of them are, in fact, heterosexual.

Friends without benefits.

If given my druthers, I prefer the company of women. I love the sound of a woman's laughter. I love the way women think. Relationally. Communally. In circles that complete themselves if you are patient. I love the way we tell stories - and the stories we have to tell.

I don't know if men have an analogous situation or circumstance of "bonding". I remember my grandfather, father, uncles and cousins sitting on the porch after dinner, smoking cigars and cigarettes and drinking my grandfather's homemade brandy.

Maybe it was the same for them. I don't know. I hope so. We were never allowed on the porch when the men were out there, after dinner. I never felt jealous. I didn't want to be with them. Truth be told, they were never allowed in my grandmother's kitchen while we were doing dishes.

I couldn't imagine a better place to be.

I love all my sisters in the Spirit of being a woman - lesbian, bi or straight - but the ones who are lasting friends are the ones with whom I've done dishes.

One of my friends gave me a little sign I have in my kitchen, attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt.

"A woman is like a tea bag. You can't tell how strong she is until she gets herself in hot water."

Washing dishes may well be one of the rituals by which women prepare themselves for that eventuality. And, I suspect, we're never stronger than when we ask for help. Thankfully, we know how.

Therein lies the truth of the old saying that "A woman's work is never done."

We're always practicing. Always listening. Always learning - about the world and God and Jesus and each other and being a woman - and mother and daughter and sister - and singing in the face of the drudgery of life and how to share the load so the work gets done.

And always, it seems, while doing dishes.


Kirkepiscatoid said...

It's so interesting, the things and places where our bonding occurs.

I never got the "women working in the kitchen" thing. I was mostly shooed out and told to "go play." Dishes for me, were this solo thing. I came home from school as a more or less latchkey kid while my mom was at work, and dishes were something I was supposed to do before going out to play, or after supper when my folks went into the living room I was supposed to do them before starting my homework.

Instead, I bonded with all the "guy places." My grandpa's shop, where he was always working on broken pinball machines or picking out records for the jukeboxes on his route. The garage, where my dad and my uncle Jerry or my dad's friends worked on their cars or chain saws or mowers or whatever. The barn, where I cared for the various critters. The yard, where there were "yard things" or the dogs were tied out.

No surprise--I bonded mostly with men and still like doing "guy stuff" better. Most of my female friends tend to have longer ring fingers than index fingers--a sign of more than usual testosterone in the womb. When my best friend Sue lived in Kirksville, we joked about that all the time--she preferred "guy stuff" too.

But the problem is "hanging with the guys" becomes a little sticky in adulthood because most of their wives think it's a little shady. LOL

But I think it's also part of why I have so much room for all sorts of orientations of people. The borders of "girl stuff" and "guy stuff" were so muddy in my life, I just stopped worrying about it!

Muthah+ said...

To this day, I hate doing dishes mainly because it meant I had to listen to the women who were talking about their children, about their new dresses or the sales that they had been to. My experience of washing dishes was not the same as yours But you can come and wash dishes at my house any time, sistah

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - That's a great theory. Hmmm . . .

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Muthah - Only if you'll sit and talk with me while I wash dishes.

JCF said...

I'm not sure if this a butch/femme thing, or an introvert/extrovert thing, or some of both (or neither).

I have a female best friend, a couple of other female close friends (from separate contexts). I love being w/ my bff, or close female friends, one-on-one (platonically, I mean)...

...but if it's a group thing (which really means, to me, "more than two people"), I MUCH prefer the company of men. Women (in a group) are too draining, to me (yeah, it's probably mainly an introvert thing).

Plus, I hate doing the dishes! :-X

martin sewell said...

I quite like washing the dishes, and have always enjoyed the company of women. You piece makes me wonder if being being close to my grandmother and a large group of strong, funny, gregarious, great aunts contributed to this - and my becoming a professional advocate. Those ladies could really talk!

Paul said...

The kitchen was clearly the center of our home. I loved watching Mother cook and worked in kitchens during my college summers. No problem bonding with cooks.

When my ex and I separated (amicably) one thing I missed viscerally was washing dishes together at the end of the evening. That was when we talked about the day (or dissected the dinner party) and enjoyed the companionable delight of a shared task. We still enjoy doing dishes together when the occasion arises.

I love when you talk about food. Growing up with lots of Armenian friends, who feed the same way (no word for "enough") I totally get it. Thanks for a great post.
--A guy who hung out with the women