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Stepping up to the plates

A Sunday morning dishwashing ritual is passed from father to son.

By Tom O'Malley / February 8, 2010

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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On Sundays my father always wore that dull gray apron – the one with the race cars all over it. The ritual began after breakfast when Dad always announced: "Go ahead everyone. I'll take care of the dishes!" With that my mother disappeared into the folds of the Sunday paper. Off came the suit coat he had worn to church that morning. Up went the shirtsleeves. On went that apron. For the next hour Dad did the dishes, singing ballads like "I Had a Hat When I Came In" and "Who Put the Chow in Mrs. Murphy's Chowder?"

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I suppose it was strange for a boy's father to wear an apron – even one with race cars – but I never thought much of it until the day that Dad broke with tradition. It was the last Sunday in August. My father seemed in an expansive mood as we walked home from church together.

"Tommy," he said letting my name roll off his tongue. My mind raced ahead of his words: The birds and the bees? A new bike? A part-time job?

"There comes a time in every boy's life when he must take on responsibilities." This was important. I might even get to back the car out of the driveway.

"Responsibilities?" I asked.

"Yes. It's time you took a greater role in the household." Power tools? Boss my baby brother?

"Starting today, I want you to do the dishes on Sunday morning so your mother and I can work the crossword puzzle together."

"The dishes!?"

"Anything wrong with taking over the dishes, Son?"

I started to say something about a man's job or woman's work, but I knew immediately that my protests would fall on deaf ears.

I didn't taste a bit of breakfast that morning. Dad seemed in a jovial mood as he described an exceptional Yankee game seen through the eyes of Mel Allen on the radio last night.

"Mickey Mantle drove the ball right over the center field wall," he said. "Just a straight line climbin' right out of the stadium. Still climbin'." He looked out the window as if trying to pick the ball out of the cloud formations. I tried to imagine Mickey Mantle wearing an apron.

Suddenly, everything grew quiet. My sister began to clear the table. My brother was scraping the last of the egg from his plate. And then that ancient family ritual that had filled so many Sunday mornings came to an end. My father announced: "Let's go read the paper, Hon."

"Aren't you doing the dishes?" my mother asked fretfully.

"Your oldest son has generously offered to fill the position."

My brother and sister stopped cold. So this was what my life had come to. A dark angel sat on my left shoulder and reminded me that I could hit a baseball farther than anyone in my class. I could bench-press my weight. I knew three declensions in Latin, the language of Caesar. Ask me to run through a rainstorm. Command me to ride the roller coaster – backward. These things I would do. But I could never do those dishes. There was nothing left but to refuse.

People often say there is a special chemistry between a father and a son. He came back into the kitchen just as I was about to storm out. He had loosened his tie and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt – ready to relax. In his right hand was the old apron.

"I want you to have this, Tommy. It'll keep your clothes from getting wet." And before I could mount a protest, he had put the thing on me. "Thanks, Son. Your mother and I appreciate this."

With that he disappeared into the Sunday paper. I looked down at the plastic. It had seen better days. I pictured Mickey Mantle swinging for the fences. I could see my dad reaching for the dishes. The dark angel flew off. Soon I was singing about Mrs. Murphy's chowder. The words came out of nowhere. And out of nowhere I knew the kind of man I wanted to be.

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