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  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

The lesson in dirty dishes

Someday I will no longer have to worry about how the dishwasher is loaded. Being just a tad bit OCD, loading it up in "perfect order" has been one of the few joys of housekeeping.

Like a master puzzle maker, everything sorted according to its size and shape, the goal has always been to use every square inch of space, in an orderly fashion of course.

I tell myself that it is to "save water" and the planet in the process, but really, in a world spinning out of control, it is one of the few tasks that brings peace and order to a chaotic world.

I lost that job when my 95 year old mom moved in. I did not lose it right away, but in tiny increments as her dementia deepened. Though it was her decision to move in, for the first four months she "raged against the machine", which in this case was me. Hurtful things came out of her mouth, reminiscent of the less than affectionate barbs slipped into conversation throughout my life.

But in those hard times, I made a conscious choice to just love her, regardless of the emotional climate. Whether it was that determination or the progress of her disease, something in her turned, and she began a transformation into a loving, gracious person…someone I had not experienced most of my life.

I think, though, that probably it was the dishes that turned the tide. Your see, she wanted to be helpful, and washing dishes was a joy from her childhood, so I agreed she could "pre-wash" them. She would get up from our shared table each morning after breakfast and totter as though intoxicated, carrying our dishes to the sink. Like a new mom, I would hover to make sure things did not get dropped.

Then I remembered that broken dishes can be replaced, but stolen dignity could not. It was a lesson I would have to learn over and again.

What started out as a quick rinse, as she progressed in her decline, became a ritual that grew each day. "I am going to do the dishes now," she would announce, and I would remove myself to let her do it all by herself. Many mornings, I sat and watched her stare out the window lost in thought, and I would wait for inspiration to return for the task at hand. Then an inner light would switch on and she would shuffle over to the sink, dishes shaking like small buildings in an earthquake, her slow almost crablike walk creating an arrhythmic thump on the tile floor.

Then the water would be turned on and I would hear the dishes being washed one at a time and set on the sink floor. A few moments would pass, and then she would turn the water on and wash them again, not out of cleanliness but forgetfulness. Over time, my teeth would no longer grind as I listened.

It is just water. And she is happy.

Every day when finished, she would come in and proudly announce the dishes were done. Often she would take my hand and lead me into the kitchen, unaware that I had been surveying her work from a distance, watching her glide like a manta ray on the ocean floor over the counters looking for things to wash and organize.

"I don't know what we would do without you,” I would tell her every time. Her face would shine like a schoolgirl who had just passed an important exam. Doing the dishes had given meaning to her life.

The newest wrinkle developed over time. A towel would get placed on the counter, and she would create a little pocket to put the silverware in and then place the washed dishes on the remaining towel. One day I opened up the cupboard and found the "washed dishes" - traces of breakfast still intact on the sides, neatly stacked.

I thought to myself, "It is time to teach her how to load the dishwasher."

We all worry so much about legacy, or maybe it is just me, wanting it to be something deep and meaningful. But this, after 95 years, was hers: She washed dishes....with great tenderness and great love. It was her act of sacrifice, done for me, the daughter she has come to love openly as we wander through this journey to the end of her life.

Someday, I will be efficient and save water and do my little organizing task with great planning and orderliness, and the sound of her shuffling across the floor and the rattle of dishes will be only a memory that haunts this house. But today, I will teach her how to load the dishwasher. It will be messy and chaotic and will, in all likelihood, turn a five minute task into an hour long ordeal. But in the end, what we will have together is something better than order...

We will have love made visible in the chaos... (Note: My mom died two days after I wrote this draft. On her last day on earth, she loaded the dishwasher and raked leaves...what she would have called a perfect day

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Mary Dessein
Mary Dessein
Mar 08, 2023

Such grace, Char. Such grace...


Mar 07, 2023

Another beautiful and inspiring post. Thank you, Char.

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