Sharing the ups and downs of life over a sink of dirty dishes

The party had ended, and the guests had gone home. I flicked on the light in the kitchen, and immediately wished I hadn't. Dirty dishes were everywhere. My husband laid a warm, comforting hand on my shoulder and whispered, "It isn't as bad as it looks."

I sighed and reached across the counter to fill the sink with water. Immediately the steam rose in spirals, and bubbles frothed at my fingertips.

Weariness began to melt away as I lost myself in the rhythmic rinsing, dunking, and washing of the dishes.

It's always been this way for me.

My mother-in-law loves to recount the many reasons for buying a dishwasher. She says hand washing actually uses more water than her sleek, energy-efficient model.

She might be right. But I still prefer the old-fashioned way, the way my mother did it, and her mother did it: a sink full of warm soapy water, a cotton dishcloth, and my own two hands.

Before my children arrived to consume my energy, I enjoyed washing the dishes after a quiet supper with my husband.

Now that I have children, I still prefer washing dishes to almost any other chore. I can step over piles of laundry, pretending not to see. I can systematically avoid rooms screaming to be vacuumed. But I'll always be the first to offer to wash the dishes.

After family members return from school and work and hungrily eat the comfort food cooked in my faithful Crock-Pot, my children help me tidy the kitchen. As their hands swish the cloth through soapy water, they tell me things in side-by-side conversations that they'd never share if asked. They also interact with each other, while feeling an important and necessary part of our home.

In a complicated world full of challenges that have neither beginnings nor endings, dishwashing reminds us that not all jobs are complicated. Some are simple and easily completed - plate

by plate, glass by glass, pot by pot. Order comes from chaos.

If only the rest of our lives were this simple.

Some people can't grasp how I cope with four children and no dishwasher. They didn't see how I involved my children when their noses barely reached the counters, praising their efforts to "help Mommy" - even though the mess they made meant more work for me.

As toddlers, my children didn't consider splashing in a sink of soapy water a chore, and I hooked them into my secret enjoyment before they realized it was really work.

When one child began to stutter, we washed dishes together, and his speech therapist shook her head in wonder at the results. This 6-year-old slowed down and began to speak without stuttering, and now, at 11, he still loves to wash the dishes for me.

When I'm left to my own solitude to scrub away the grease, it's as if I am also filtering the debris that clouds my thoughts. Solutions to problems that have eluded me all day appear and calmly settle into my thought, as if they've been waiting for me to relax and find them.

I don't want to glorify my dishwashing - it isn't exactly as cleansing as a brisk walk in the wilderness. But, in a busy life sometimes filled with frustration, it might just be the next best thing.

Some of my best memories of family dinners revolve around the cleanup afterward. When I was a child, we did our best to scurry out of sight before being nabbed for dish duty. But once there, placed upon the chair in front of the sink, we sang silly songs and listened to stories we might not have otherwise heard. Grandma fed me nibbles of dessert as she walked past, and my mother turned away, pretending not to see.

As I grew and invited boys for dinner, dishwashing became the ultimate test. If the young man stood to help when my mother pushed her chair back, he passed. If he lingered and needed to be nudged to help, he forfeited future invitations.

We've ended many parties with our guests joyfully rolling up shirt-sleeves and pitching in. We've shared the griefs of our lives and washed dishes when we didn't want to return to a crowded room full of people. We've reveled in the miracle of life as hands reached out to touch a baby kicking within. We've swung tea towels over our shoulders as we held each other to cry and laugh.

Dishwashing brings joy and conversation and closeness after a meal. In the process, a kitchen thrown into disarray over the course of the evening is folded back into place again. I have never seen an automatic dishwasher do that.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting experiences, send an e-mail to: home@csps.com.

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