Just Dishing

For something people are so loathe to do, isn’t it amazing how strongly folks feel about how, exactly, dishes are done?

Unless I am completely exhausted, I really don’t mind doing dishes. In fact, I rather like it. When faced with a list of household chores, it is dishes I will tackle first. I am one of those folks who really prefers, okay, insists, that the dishes be done immediately after the meal is consumed. And, to me, “doing dishes” includes, also, the cleansing of counters and stovetops. So, I’m fastidious. In this respect. Dusting and vacuuming? Another story. But, I’m a kitchen person. When I entertain, it is usually the kitchen that becomes the center for visiting and socializing. I may be just a little food-centric.

I have not always felt quite this way. As a child, dishes were one of my chores. I seemed to have many chores as a kid. Both of my parents worked and I always came home from school and woke up on Saturday morning to find a list, in my mother’s familiar cursive, of chores to be completed, satisfactorily, by the time she got home. After dinner, it was my responsibility to clear the table, put the dishes in the dishwasher and clean any pots and pans. I loathed and despised this chore, and rather than just tackling it quickly and efficiently and enjoying the rest of my evening, I would stall and lollygag and take absolutely forever. Of course, after dishes came homework, so maybe I stalled at one to put off the other. I really don’t remember clearly my motives at that time. But, oddly enough, my kids were exactly the same way.

My dad worked every Saturday of my life until he retired, then he did dishes morning, noon and night. My mom, as an R.N., worked many Saturdays. So, Saturday, I did my thing. All day long. I’d make Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, and bowls of cookie dough and chocolate frosting, which I ate out of the bowl with a spoon. I’d bake Bisquick biscuits and pancakes. And everything would pile up in the sink. Until about 3:00 PM. My mom was due home at about 3:30 PM. At 3:00 PM, I’d stop watching cartoons, or roller skating in the driveway, or doing gymnastics in the living room. I’d turn the stereo down so only I could hear it and the neighbors were, at last, relieved. And I began my chores; ironing my dad’s work shirts, cleaning the bathrooms, all two and a half, vacuuming, dusting, and, last of all, dishes. When my mom entered the house it was as though I’d done nothing all day long but chores. Except it smelled like strangely of pancakes. I’m still under the impression she was fooled. Perhaps not. I don’t know. We don’t discuss it. Her choice.

In college, with roommates, dishes were a source of irritation and disagreements. Living with friends from high school all through college, those friendships would sometimes become strained due to dishes. We all came from different households, of course, where dishes were done (or not) differently, and these differences were not appreciated or understood by anyone else. I came from a home where they were always done immediately after a meal. Others came from homes where they were only done when the cupboards were empty and there was no room left in the sink, on the countertops, the stovetop, in the oven, or the kitchen table. And there was everything in between. And it was always chaos, finger pointing, gossiping, and complaining.

In my own household, married and raising a family, I preferred dishes to be done immediately after a meal, and in the manner I was accustomed to. My husband was not of the same ilk, his mother having passed away when he was a fairly young boy, he was “raised” by his father. And his twin brother. May as well have been raised by wolves. And yet, for someone with no real guidance in the kitchen, he had some very deep seated and non-negotiable kitchen “cleanliness” requirements I just never accepted, appreciated or respected. This, truly, may be one of the irreconcilable differences I list on the divorce papers. Dishes. And in particular, the dish brush and the sponge.

For a time, we lived together, before nuptials. And, for a time, we had roommates to help offset the rent expense. And, for that time, we had one of two problems; dishes in the sink, on the counters, on the stove, on the table and none in the cupboard. The other problem, no dishes in the sink, on the counters, on the stove, on the table, or in the cupboard. No dishes. Anywhere. How could that be? One day, home alone, I sought to investigate this mystery. I carefully and quietly entered the bedroom of our only remaining roommate, Bob, suspecting I might find dishes on his desk, dresser, bookcase, etc. Nope. No dishes. How can dishes just disappear? And then suddenly reappear, dirty, in the sink, on the counters, on the stove, and on the table? Bob’s closet was slightly ajar and as I passed I caught a glimpse of something suspicious. A dish. I ever so quietly pulled the closet door open and found, to my disgust and dismay, every dish we owned, crusted with food, some of it in various states of decay, on the shelf in his closet. Ew. Bob was pissed that I’d entered his room to find such a horror. I was pissed to have entered Bob’s room to find such a horror. Luckily, I won the pissing contest and Bob moved out.

I have observed many friends and their dish doing habits, and everyone seems quite married, or at least betrothed, to their way of doing things. I have one dear, dear, long time friend who has an absolutely perfect, always ready to entertain at a moment’s notice, Sunset magazine kind of home. She lives a completely charmed life in about every way imaginable, but that’s a story for another time. I hate her. I love her. It’s complicated. But really, I love her. No, I hate her. Never mind. It’s complicated. Anyway, when she had her first child “we” (all the girlfriends, spouses and our babies of various annoying ages) visited her, at home, just as she came home from the hospital. This was not my idea, but, rather, that of one of us who did not yet have children and probably, the well-meaning saint she is, thought this was okay. A fantastic meal for many mouths was prepared in her flawless kitchen and a gigantic mess was made in the process. When the food was devoured and it came time to do dishes, the new mother, infant in hand, became Beelzebub himself. She has always been a little “temperamental”, but this was beyond temperamental and more like a tempest. This was the first time, ever, that I became acquainted with the fact that some people really, really, truly, deeply and passionately care about how, exactly, and I mean EXACTLY, the dishes are loaded into the dishwasher. For me, the dishes went in however they fit and they came out clean. End of story. No, not so. The forks go here, this way, the spoons, the dessert spoons, here and that way. The soup spoons here and another way. Bowls here facing this way, plates there facing that way. I need a fucking diagram! I went and changed my son’s diaper. For the fifth time. Though he didn’t require it. Just before the dishes were done, having run out of diapers (how did that happen), we retreated to my mom’s house for the night where the dishes just got put into the dishwasher, the button was pressed and they came out clean. That, too, with time, has changed. With mom. And me. Sort of.

More recently. I have a friend whose house is always a deplorable mess. I have a hard time even entering her house, and yet, she unapologetically continues to invite me into her home. I have actually had the dry heaves a time or two, which I’ve cleverly disguised as a sneeze. It smells like animals she doesn’t even own in there. It smells like dead animals she never owned in there. What did a dead dinosaur smell like? Maybe that’s the odor. I cannot begin to describe the horrors within, except that Bob’s closet did not even hold a candle to all that is her house. The kitchen is the worst. Or maybe the bathroom. Or perhaps the living room. No, the kitchen. I never ate anything at her house or anything that came from her house. Once, when visiting this friend, she was making a “protein shake”. She offered to make me one. I told her I was allergic to protein. I don’t think she believed me. She put the ingredients in a dirty, crusty, opaque with slime blender bowl, placed her hand over the top as a lid, turned it on and poured it into some random and visibly dirty vessel on the counter and licked her hand. She grabbed the cleanest appearing spoon she could find, one positioned disturbingly close to a half full, dried up can of canned cat food and stirred the concoction. Then, to my horror, she licked the spoon, opened a drawer and threw it in like it were clean. I would cringe when I saw people eat things she’d prepared for a potluck. I would tell them, later, unsolicited, but out of a sheer sense of duty, “I have Imodium with me, if you ever need it.” They’d eye me like I was selling street drugs, but on more than one occasion I was sought out for this remedy.

I really don’t know how my parents got me to first of all, consent to do the dishes, dutifully, each and every night, nor do I know how they enforced this request. With my own kids, it was requested and yet, never happened. Perhaps it was because I grew up not really caring about homework, and the struggles that ensued later in life, as a result, I wished my own offspring to avoid. So, when I asked them to do dishes all they need say to ensure their release from such duty was “I have a ton of homework”. That meant, simply enough, I had a ton of dishes to do. Myself, while my spouse sat, comatose, in front of the television, doing finger aerobics with the remote.

Interestingly enough, when my daughter and I went to Girl Scout camp together, we always, always conspired to volunteer to do dishes. And I swear it was her idea more than mine. By doing dishes, you got your required chore done early and fast AND, most importantly, your hands got clean for the first time all day in that wonderful, warm, soapy water. And, if you did the dishes you didn’t have to clean the BIFFY (bathroom in (the) forest for you). Once we returned home, with nice clean, soft hands, though, it was as though she’d never learned to do dishes. Nor could I convince her to clean the BITHY (bathroom in the house (for) you). How did she have homework in July? I’m such a schmuck.

The dish brush and the sponge; twenty years of yuck and one of the (many, many, many, many) straws that finally broke the camel’s back. Perhaps being raised by wolves would have been an improvement, but, somewhere along the line, my husband decided it was proper, heck, absolutely, positively and non-negotiably, required that the dish brush be kept behind the faucet. You know, that little trench of potential disgustingness between the faucet and the wall? Sure, let’s put the slimy, greasy, food encrusted dish brush there and create a miasma in that impossible to clean area. And, let’s just keep the festering sponge next to the faucet on the rim of the sink, until it falls into the sink, in which case, we’ll just pile the dirty, food laden dishes on top of it until we “deep six” the dishes. To “deep six” the dishes, we just fill the sink with hot soapy water and bury the dirty dishes until someone else (me) comes along and puts them in the dishwasher. Meanwhile, the sponge is at the bottom of this science experiment, in now cold, greasy, dirty dishwater and has to be dug out, wrung out, and then, filthy and contaminated, used to “clean” the dishes.

When the dish brush, the sponge and everything else got to the point that I could stand no more (and, really, it was the everything else), I left. I moved to my very own apartment. All by myself. And for the first time, ever, I was in complete control of my environment. I was in heaven. Bliss. Bliss squared. Bliss exponentially an exponential number or times. I embraced this sense of control to an almost unhealthy point. Not a single carpet fiber was out of place. I’ve always liked to make my bed as soon as I got up, but I actually learned how to make my bed, pretty much, as I climbed out from under the covers. Dishes were done the instant the meal was over, including pots and pans, casseroles and serving dishes. The counters were cleansed and so was the stove before, during and after each and every use. And sometimes more often, just because I loved the smell of my “Method” lavender spray cleaner. I began to load my dishwasher in a very specific manner; forks here, spoons there, knives thusly, plates this way, bowls that way. I ran my dishwasher every single night, even if there was only one plate, one knife, one fork and one spoon. I unloaded my dishwasher promptly each morning, after making my bed, while the hot water heated for my coffee. After doing my dishes I actually cleaned and dried out my sink so there would never be those annoying stains I’d have to clean with an abrasive. Same with the shower, as soon as I was done showering, I cleaned and wiped down the shower so I’d never actually have to clean the shower. I loathe and despise, with a passion, shower mold. This was my world. This was my heaven. This was heaven on earth. Then my daughter moved in.

Bless her heart, returning “home” from college to a home she’d never lived in, but a welcome relief from the home we’d lived in for many years beforehand, this new intensity of cleanliness was both welcomed and a bit overwhelming. But, as a result, and with some initial struggle, in her own home now, it is ship shape and tidy and clean. She, ever the entertainer, and now married to her high school sweetheart, their home is much like my dear, old friend’s, who, ironically, also married her high school sweetheart, spotless and always ready for friends to visit, invited or not.

After living in my own apartment for a while, I moved in with my son when his roommates, all friends from high school, moved out to transfer to other schools. Left with a full size, single family dwelling and the full sized lease payment, I decided not to renew my apartment lease, pulled up my perfectly clean and tidy roots and moved into a house that had been occupied by four college boys for a year. It was like a horror movie. There were, literally, footprints on the nine-foot ceilings. Somehow. And the chemical equation for an illegal substance drawn on the plate glass window with a Sharpie. That’s before we even broach the subject of the kitchen. Over the months I was able to slowly transform the trashed house and small yard into something that almost resembled an abode for quasi-normal people. Almost. Even after the house was tidy, though, there continued a small battlefield. The sink. And the stove. Okay, and the refrigerator. We’ll just say the kitchen, to be all-inclusive. And, again, with my son working nearly full-time and attending school full-time, and with him being an adult and, every now and then, paying his portion of the rent, it was difficult to “require” him to do his dishes. But, really, his dishes usually consisted of a coffee cup, a bowl, a spoon and rarely, a pan with greasy taco meat and a taco meat encrusted plate. It was when the girlfriend visited and “graciously” cooked dinner that things got way out of control. My control. And, bless her heart, she had strict parents, and a curfew, so after dinner was “quality time”, which didn’t consist of “you wash, I’ll dry”, so every dish, pot and pan I owned were strewn across the kitchen. If, as on one or two rare occasions, the dishes were done, they were just placed into the dishwasher, un-rinsed and crusted with food. Our dishwasher was, really, only a dish sterilizer, and that I even doubted. You had to completely wash the dishes before washing the dishes or you’d have to re-wash the dishes. And then, there was the china and the crystal and all the cast iron and all those things that just don’t go in the dishwasher. You guessed it, they’d end up in the dishwasher and I’d cringe. And apologize to my dishes in the morning. I don’t know which was worse, when she didn’t do the dishes or when she did. Either way, I was doing the dishes, for the first time, or again. And I don’t know who taught her how to stir, but it looked to me like she tossed everything like green salad. All over the stove. All over the countertops.  All over the floor. And guess who ended up cleaning all this up because she couldn’t stand it? Or because she needed a pan or a plate or a clean stove to cook with. Me. They’ve broken up now, which is sad, of course. And I hope some day, when he is ready, my son finds a nice girl to settle down with who knows how to do dishes. My way.

My son moved out to live with some college kids. Thankfully. We were good roommates, but it is better for him to be with peers, having a college experience. So, I moved home, with Mom, who is nearly ninety and needs a little help around the house. But not with dishes. Mom has her way with dishes and, by golly, they’ve changed dramatically since I was a kid. Now, the dishwasher has to be loaded in a very specific way. She loads in a painstaking manner so unloading it will be easier. What she fails to understand is that, either way, you’re spending about the same amount of effort and time. If it takes considerable effort to load the dishwasher in a very specific manner, it takes less time to unload it. On the other hand, if you just toss the dishes in in any old manner, it takes no time to load it but more time to unload. It’s all the same in the end. This was the logic I tried to apply to my friend and her tyrannical dishwasher-loading tempest many years ago. And, truthfully, I get it now. When it comes to silverware. Categorizing the silverware going into the dishwasher makes unloading it so much easier, you can do it in a couple of handfuls. But applying this method to plates and bowls, which you generally unload one or two at a time anyway, I still don’t get. Do you? But, this is her home, so I play along. Besides, she is hard of hearing and any kind of conversation is difficult enough and if I start to talk about dishes we get off topic on fishes, or wishes, or things that are suspicious. Sigh.

Now I have a wonderful man in my life. Funny, or not, my man is so much like my mom it is almost creepy. Oh, he hears well enough, but he enjoys watching the news. And he has very strong dishwashing preferences. When it comes to dishes, there are definite boundaries. I respect that. If only I had a diagram, though. His dishwasher is his pride, his joy and his kingdom. The plates face this way, the bowls that way and the silverware goes in exactly according to the instructions supplied by the folks who translated the instructions from Chinese into English. I’m cool with that. Just tell me how and I’m happy to do. The funny thing is, since his dishwasher is the shiz, thou shalt not rinse thy dish before placing in thy washer. I struggle with this. I actually feel remorse when I get busted rinsing a dish before placing it precisely so in the dishwasher. Every dishwasher I have ever encountered required the dishes be completely washed, or pressure washed, or maybe just rinsed really, really well, or at least swished a little, under running water. And, bless his heart, as I was doing dishes last week, upon inquiry from the neighbor, I heard him say something about “trying to be more tolerant” of the whole dish thing when others offer to do dishes. I should pay closer attention, I am happy to do the dishes, but I prefer there be peace and harmony in the dishwasher kingdom. I need a flowchart. This is a man who, among other many other things, is an ace in the kitchen, who not only knows who Jacques Pepin is but loves Jacques Pepin and who doesn’t keep a dirty dish brush behind the faucet, but, rather, a clean dish brush in a beautiful, dedicated, ceramic bowl next to the sink. A man who distrusts sponges as much as I do. A man with a container of butter next to the stove for sautéing. A man who will run the dishwasher when all the wine glasses are dirty but the plate rack is still empty. Did I mention I am in love?

So, how is it that we are all so different when it comes to dishes? We are either anal retentive, militant, dish overlords, or we simply don’t see the need to ever cleanse the implements with which we prepare and serve food? Somehow, we even have generational differences. And dishwashing habits can actually cause relationship rifts and can contribute to irreconcilable differences. How does this happen? Are there therapists and psychoanalysts for dishwashing? Should we all just use paper plates? Or perhaps embrace a more minimalist and environmentally responsible mode; a spork and a bowl and one cast iron Dutch oven in every kitchen. The recipe for contentment. How will we ever find peace, harmony, tolerance, understanding, acceptance and the ability to coexist in this world if we can’t even agree on how, or whether, the forks should go into the dishwasher? Is there hope for the kitchen? Is there hope for the world? I don’t know, but I’m hungry. I think I’ll microwave leftovers from the restaurant to avoid having to do dishes tonight. I seek peace.

Plates this way. Bowls that way. Knives, handle down, here, forks, tines down, there ... Slimy sponge and scrubber properly caged and out of sight (wring them out as soon as cycle ends, though)
Plates this way. Bowls that way. Knives, handle down, here, forks, tines down, there … Slimy sponge and scrubber properly caged and out of sight (wring them out as soon as cycle ends, though)
Top rack, a suitable home for the dish brush. Always clean and out of sight.
Top rack, a suitable home for the dish brush. Always clean and out of sight.
No brush behind the faucet = no miasma in hard to clean area.
No brush behind the faucet = no miasma in hard to clean area.

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