Yesterday’s Unwashed Dishes

She rarely made us do it—
we’d clear the table instead—so my sister and I teased
that some day we’d train our children right
and not end up like her, after every meal stuck
with red knuckles, a bleached rag to wipe and wring.
The one chore she spared us: gummy plates
in water greasy and swirling with sloughed peas,
globs of egg and gravy.
                                Or did she guard her place
at the window? Not wanting to give up the gloss
of the magnolia, the school traffic humming.
Sunset, finches at the feeder. First sightings
of the mail truck at the curb, just after noon,
delivering a note, a card, the least bit of news.
~Susan Meyers “Mother, Washing Dishes”
My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the ‘stream of consciousness’ type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink.

….I had to admit that nobody had compelled me to wash these dishes or to tidy this kitchen. It was the fussy spinster in me, the Martha who could not comfortably sit and make conversation when she knew that yesterday’s unwashed dishes were still in the sink.
~Barbara Pym from Excellent Women

I trace the faltering American family to the invention of the automatic dishwasher.

What ever has happened to the human dishwasher with two hands full of wash cloth and scrubber, alongside a dish dryer armed with a towel?

Where is the list on the refrigerator of whose turn is next, and the accountability if a family member somehow shirks their washing/drying responsibility and leaves the dishes to the next day?

No longer do family members have to cooperate to scrub clean glasses, dishes and utensils, put them in the dish rack, dry them one by one and place them in the cupboard where they belong. If the washer isn’t doing a proper job, the dryer immediately takes note and recycles the dirty dish right back to the sink. Instant accountability. I always preferred to be the dryer. If I washed, and my sister dried, we’d never get done. She would keep recycling the dishes back for another going-over. My messy nature exposed.

The family conversations started over a meal often continue over the clean-up process while concentrating on whether a smudge is permanent or not. I learned some important facts of life while washing and drying dishes that I might not have learned otherwise. Sensitive topics tend to be easier to discuss when elbow deep in soap suds. Spelling and vocabulary and math fact drills are more effective when the penalty for a missed word is a snap on the butt with a dish towel.

Modern society is missing the best opportunity for three times a day family-together time. Forget family “game” night, or parental “date” night, or even vacations. Dish washing and drying at the sink takes care of all those times when families need to be communicating and cooperating.

It is time to treat the automatic dishwasher as simply another storage cupboard and instead pull out the brillo pads, the white cotton dishtowels and the plastic dishrack.

Let’s start tonight.

And I think it is your turn first…



14 thoughts on “Yesterday’s Unwashed Dishes

  1. I still enjoy washing my dishes in the sink. While reading your words, images of your family dish washing sessions swirl thru my mind…then changing into memories if my childhood washing dishes with my sister. As if it was yesterday…thanks emily for sharing.


  2. Much food for thought here and appreciated. Although we have a dishwasher, I manage to hand wash a load every day. It gives me time to think, enjoy the flow of rinse water – and, if truth be told. really get my garden dirt encrusted fingers clean. I think a lot of family spats were worked through over dishwashing/drying – though a few started there as well. Great post. Thank you.


  3. I think you are so right…many of our slow times of togetherness have been usurped by technology. Another invention that has changed our neighborhoods is the remote controlled garage door opener. Press, enter, close. Opportunities lost.


  4. Love this! So true. Kitchen conversations can be some of the best. Three cheers for getting rid of the dishwasher! Thanks for the reminder.


  5. Our dishwasher broke a few years ago, and it just hasn’t been high enough on the priority list to replace it. I love watching the three boybarians cleaning up the kitchen… one washes, one dries, one puts away. It’s the high-volume camaraderie that at once drives me a little bonkers, yet warms my heart 😀 Who knew it would be a blessing when the dishwasher went belly up? (And thank God for Corelle ;D)


  6. Let’s not get crazy Emily….LOL. J/K some of my fondest memories are of me and my brother doing dishes.♥ I have to say that I love my dishwasher however. 😉


  7. I loved reading all the comments! I just don’t remember the dish-washing camaraderie that you all speak of. I was the baby of our family, so never shared the task with my sister and brother. Later we had a Christian “camp” in the mountains, with several sets of family teenagers who DID work together on mountains of dishes. I’m 80 now, and never had a dishwasher until 5 years ago–and it is a blessing that I thank God for EVERY SINGLE DAY!!!! Grin! (Pots and pans are still done by hand.)


  8. Brought me back to teen years where my sister and I, one washed, one dried. If you were the dryer and waited to long, the washer was likely to resprinkle the dishes so the dryer would have a proper job. Maybe this is the beginning of equal opportunity for “work”.


  9. Ah, we haven’t got a dishwasher — my teens handle that chore, turn about from one meal and one day to the next 🙂 and yes, whilst the one washes the other is always nearby, sweeping, or wiping down the stove or reading bits out from a book. It’s one of their special times to talk 🙂


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