The suds are still a bonus

The dishes are piling up. It's been three days since I last got out the tub and the rack and the liquid soap. When you live by yourself, getting down to doing the dishes is mostly a matter of self-discipline. It was different, though , when I was growing up. Back then it was my mother's benevolent coercion that roused me and my brothers to get busy at the sink after every evening meal. From the beginning we knew that doing the dishes was necessary and no fun. But in that early kitchen it wasn't a solitary chore, and that made all the difference.

As children we enjoyed the glug-glug when we pushed the milk glasses under and the suction when we lifted a bottoms-up glass straight out of the water. We marveled when a big filmy dome suddenly appeared; then we popped it with devilish glee. The child doing the washing could stop to run a wet finger round and round the rim of a crystal goblet to make it sing, or use a clear mixing bowl to peer through the thick layer of suds to the bottom. When the glasses and plates were done, the washer used a forearm to slide all the silverware into the sink in one sloppy crash.

By the time I was 9, my older brother, who was beginning to play chess seriously and was always thinking schematically, made up a schedule for doing the dishes and taped it to the side of the refrigerator. We still had to be pressed into service, but now my mother had a captain. Three children, three jobs (did my mother plan this?) - wash, dry, and put away. We rotated, we complained.

Even though we children were ''assigned'' to the dishes, my mother often stayed around the kitchen after dinner, sponging off the table, sorting leftovers, tossing pork chop bones and celery into a pot of water and putting it on the stove to make stock. Or, just to keep company with us, she'd sit at the table reading, planning menus, or mending some shirt or sock.

Sometimes she and my older brother (when it was his job to put away and he only had to wait till everything was dry and stacked) did his Latin lessons together. She'd quiz him on his hic, haec, hoc, his vinco, vincere, vici, victus. A year later he was translating Cicero out loud, and my mother would verify his version from her own high school text. I'd dry the dishes quietly, feeling soothed by the sonorous cadences of conjugated verbs I couldn't understand.

When I was in seventh grade, I entered a school district spelling bee. My mother would pick words from a booklet I was given and announce them to my back as I washed. I'd leave the dishrag stuffed into the glass a moment, press my chin into my shoulder, and try to visualize abrogate or accede or adulation. I learned to spell a lot of words I didn't know the meanings of. Some were as mysterious as Latin verbs.

The biggest cleanup was after Sunday dinner. There were so many dishes that they had to be stacked on both sides of the sink. It was all the elegant hand-me-down stuff we never used on any day but Sunday: etched crystal glasses, white china cups and saucers rimmed in gold leaf, and my father's Bowdoin plates. I knew all the campus scenes on the plates by heart, I'd seen them pass in and out of the soapy water so many times.

Sunday dinner conversations were often lopsided, my older brother sometimes becoming the third adult and we ''kids'' (as my brother called my younger brother and me even when we were teen-agers) piping up only occasionally from the sidelines. Once when I objected to ''kids,'' he said, ''Well, to the kitchen then, brother and sister, brethren and sistern.'' The playful distortion annoyed me even though I laughed.

Out in the kitchen I squirted liquid soap into the sink, turned on the tap full force, and watched the soapsuds rise while my brother grabbed a fresh tea towel out of the top, right drawer of the kitchen cabinet. As I immersed my forearms in the hot water, any grudges I had were softened and we began to talk - about a boring teacher or an idiotic television show, about what we had learned in our classes that week or what we had seen on the latest hike through the orchard to the high-banks. There were plenty of times when both washer and dryer retreated into their own thoughts, amiably or sullenly, but there was a companionship even in that shared silence.

I'm not quite sure why it was easier to talk while we worked than it was sitting face to face around the dinner table. Maybe it was the rhythm of the work, the slow four-four time of dipping, wiping, rinsing, and racking. Maybe the slight amount of concentration and physical effort required to do the dishes somehow made us better listeners and thinkers. Maybe it was just knowing that we didn't have to be acting like a family, that togetherness wasn't the point of this kind of being together, so we were more successful at it.

In my own kitchen now, I put the glasses into the tub one by one. I almost don't notice that a bubble as big as a teacup has formed on the mounding suds. I scoop up the fragile dome carefully with both hands and stare at it, wondering how long I can make it last. The suds are still a bonus.

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