Adults wash dishes.
That was my impression growing up as I watched my father at the kitchen sink after every evening meal. Earlier in the day I might have seen my mother washing breakfast dishes or, later in the afternoon, the knives with which my brothers and I spread peanut butter and strawberry jam on sliced bread on our return from school.
It was an adult stance my father and mother assumed at those times, leaning against the edge of a porcelain sink, looking out the window as one plate after another came up from the suds to meet a dish cloth or Brillo pad. There was no day that went by in my childhood home without the sound of hot water at some point pouring full force from a kitchen faucet for the rinsing of dishes and pots.
Washing dishes was about as adult as writing a check or driving a car, but just as my aunts and uncles drove different makes of car from the Chevrolets my father invariably bought, the arrangement of the kitchen sinks in my cousins' houses was always a little unfamiliar. The brand of dish detergent might be different as well as where the bottle was stored -- in a rack on the back of a cabinet door below the sink or in a caddy next to the faucets. I could not understand why my aunts did not leave their freshly rinsed plates and silverware in a dish rack to begin to dry but rather immediately took up dish towels for drying and storing each item. It seemed odd that people we knew that we loved managed the clean-up after meals with different routines and different cleaning supplies.
For most of the past twenty-five years, standing at a sink and washing dishes by hand has been something that happens for me on special occasions. In the aftermath of a Thanksgiving meal, I have taken my turn in the kitchen and rinsed food off plates and scrubbed skillets and colanders and serving spoons. Some more rustic vacation rentals required filling a sink with hot water after meals and soaking soup mugs and casserole dishes for a half hour or more. Crystal often collected on the island at home until all dinner party guests had left and leftovers had been stored and I was free to dip each piece of soapy stemware under a spray of hot water. No matter how much I eventually disagreed with my parents on how to run other aspects of a household or a life, I never adopted any significant alternative to their methods of washing dishes by hand when hand-washing was what they needed.
The watchful kindness of friends found me a place to live back in the summer when my circumstances changed. Despite notable conveniences, the new quarters lack a private kitchen, and those methods of washing dishes by hand that I learned from my New Orleans parents have returned to take a place in my day's schedule of activities.
The nighttime purr of a dishwasher is a household sound that I have not heard in over five months. I carry a white Tupperware tub with my daily dishes down a short hallway, turn on the hot water in a communal kitchen, and become someone who has to take care of certain things for himself right now. Sometimes I become my father standing at that sink in the evening, sometimes my mother checking whether a second rinse is necessary.
I slow down, though, in my day when I stand by that sink. I watch my hands as they carefully place glasses on a nearby counter. I take satisfaction knowing that everything I wash and rinse will dry with a gleam. I return to my rooms with my daily dishes and look around at what another day has enabled me to do.
And I'm content.