Please Don’t Take My Sunshine Away

My father climbs into the silo.
He has come, rung by rung,
up the wooden trail that scales
that tall belly of cement.

It’s winter, twenty below zero,
He can hear the wind overhead.
The silage beneath his boots
is so frozen it has no smell.

My father takes up a pick-ax
and chops away a layer of silage.
He works neatly, counter-clockwise
under a yellow light,

then lifts the chunks with a pitchfork
and throws them down the chute.
They break as they fall
and rattle far below.

His breath comes out in clouds,
his fingers begin to ache, but
he skims off another layer
where the frost is forming

and begins to sing, “You are my
sunshine, my only sunshine.”
~Joyce Sutphen, “Silo Solo” from First Words

Farmers gotta be tough. There is no taking a day off from chores. The critters need to eat and their beds cleaned even during the coldest and hottest days. Farmers rise before the sun and return to the house long after the sun sets. They need a positive outlook to keep going – knowing there is sunshine somewhere even when the skies are gray, their fingers are aching from the cold, and their back hurts.

I come from a long line of farmers on both sides – my mother was the daughter of wheat farmers and my father was the son of subsistence stump farmers who had to supplement their income with outside jobs as a cook and in lumber mills. Both my parents went to college; their parents wanted something better for them than they had. Both my parents had professions but still chose to live on a farm – daily milkings, crops in the garden and fields, raising animals for meat.

My husband’s story is similar, with both parents working on and off the farm. Dan milked cows with his dad and as a before-school job in the mornings.

We still chose to live on a farm to raise our children and commit to the daily work, no matter the weather, on sunlit days and blowing snow days and gray muddy days. And now, when our grandchildren visit, we introduce them to the routine and rhythms of farm life, the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows, and through it all, we are grateful for the values that follow through the generations of farming people.

And one of our favorite songs to sing to our grandchildren is “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,” a song originally written about a horse named “Sunshine.

For the farmer and the rest of us, it is the Sun that sustains our days and its promise of return that sustains our nights.

You’ll never know, dears, how much we love you.
Please don’t take our sunshine away.

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Watching the Birds Watching Me

I have been trying to think of the word to say to you that would never fail to lift you up when you are too tired or too sad not [to] be downcast. When you are so sad that you ‘cannot work’ there is always a danger fear will enter in and begin withering around.

A good way to remain on guard is to go to the window and watch the birds for an hour or two or three. It is very comforting to see their beaks opening and shutting.
~Maeve Brennan in a letter to writer Tillie Olsen

My window is a book of birds.
I draw back the curtains
and there they all are,
scribbling their lives in the trees.

Bird in the holly tree,
invisible mentor,
your cheerful philosophy
is a glittering chain of light
slung between us,
drawing me ever closer
to the source of your joy.

The silver thread of your song
guides me through the dark
as surely as the night
I first heard you,
improvising on a theme
of beauty and truth
in the holly tree out there.

~Hugo Williams from “Birdwatching”

I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.
~Emily Dickinson in an 1885 letter to Miss Eugenia Hall

The windows are dressed in feathers where the birds have flown against them,
then fallen below into the flowers where their bodies lie grounded, still,
slowly disappearing each day until all that is left are their narrow, prehensile bones.

I have sat at my window now for years and watched a hundred birds
mistake the glass for air and break their necks, wondering what to do,
how else to live among them and keep my view.
Not to mention the sight of them at the feeder in the morning,
especially the cardinal in snow.

What sign to post on the sill that says, “Warning, large glass window.
Fatal if struck. Fly around or above but not away.
There are seeds in the feeder and water in the bath.
I need you, which is to say, I’m sorry for my genius as the creature inside
who attracts you with seeds and watches you die against the window
I’ve built with the knowledge of its danger to you. 
With a heart that rejects its reasons in favor of keeping what it wants:
the sight of you, the sight of you.”

~Chard deNiord, “Confession of a Bird Watcher” from Interstate

I made the terrible faux pas of running out of suet and bird seed this week. My little feathered buddies fly up to the feeders by our kitchen window and poke around the empty trays, glance disparagingly in my direction, then fly away disheartened. There is no free lunch today.

I am no birder; I don’t go out looking for birds like the serious people of the birding community who keep a careful list of all they seen or hear. I don’t even track every species that comes to visit my humble offerings here on the farm nor do I recognize the frequent visitors as individuals. I just enjoy watching so many diverse sizes, colors and types coming together in one place to feast in relative peace and cooperation and I’m the hostess.

Birds are my visual and tangible reminder that the good Lord provides, buoyed by the help of hospitable humans who set out irresistible treats next to big windows. These delightful creatures have such autonomy and genuine glee in their daily existence until they forget their boundaries and slam headlong into invisible glass, too often falling to the ground for good. Then the farm cats are gleeful.

I know all about the warnings to stop doing communal bird feeding: spreading bird diseases too easily among multiple species who come together to feast, attracting vermin and assisting their burgeoning population growth, assisting predators like my aforementioned farm cats in their decimation of the wild bird population, encouraging wild birds to ignore their usual migration urge to seek better feeding/breeding climates so they often die prematurely.

As a trained scientist in animal behavior, I understand it all. As a human observer seeking to enjoy feathered friends during long gray winter days, I ignore it all.

Pardon me now, as I better head to the farm store to replenish my bird feasting stash. See you all later.

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To Recover the Lost

The songs of small birds fade away
into the bushes after sundown,
the air dry, sweet with goldenrod.
Beside the path, suddenly, bright asters
flare in the dusk. The aged voices
of a few crickets thread the silence.
It is a quiet I love, though my life
too often drives me through it deaf.
Busy with costs and losses, I waste
the time I have to be here—a time
blessed beyond my deserts, as I know,
if only I would keep aware. The leaves
rest in the air, perfectly still.
I would like them to rest in my mind
as still, as simply spaced. As I approach,
the sorrel filly looks up from her grazing,
poised there, light on the slope
as a young apple tree. A week ago
I took her away to sell, and failed
to get my price, and brought her home
again. Now in the quiet I stand
and look at her a long time, glad
to have recovered what is lost
in the exchange of something for money.
~Wendell Berry “The Sorrel Filly”

I am reminded at the end of a week
of dark and wet and cold
with chores not done yet,
and horses waiting to be fed,
of the value of decades of moments spent
with long-lashed eyes, wind-swept manes, and velvet muzzles.

True, it appears to others to be time and money wasted.
But for a farmer like me, sometimes deaf and blind
to what is in front of me every day,
not all valuables are preserved in a lock box.

Golden treasure can have
four hooves, a tail, with a rumbling greeting
asking if I’d somehow gotten lost
since I’m a little later than usual
and they were a bit concerned I’d forgotten them.

Only then I remember where my home is
and how easy it is to wander from the path
that somehow always leads me back here.

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Only Here and Now

When I work outdoors all day, every day,
as I do now, in the fall, getting ready for winter,
tearing up the garden, digging potatoes,
gathering the squash, cutting firewood, making kindling, repairing
bridges over the brook, clearing trails in the woods,

doing the last of the fall mowing,
pruning apple trees, taking down the screens,
putting up the storm windows, banking the house—all these things,
as preparation for the coming cold…


when I am every day all day all body and no mind, when I am
physically, wholly and completely, in this world with the birds,
the deer, the sky, the wind, the trees…


when day after day I think of nothing but what the next chore is,
when I go from clearing woods roads, to sharpening a chain saw,
to changing the oil in a mower, to stacking wood, when I am
all body and no mind…

when I am only here and now and nowhere else—
then, and only then, do I see the crippling power of mind,
the curse of thought, and I pause and wonder why
I so seldom find this shining moment in the now.
~David Budbill “This Shining Moment in the Now” from While We’ve Still Got Feet.

I spend only a small part of my day doing physical work compared to my husband’s faithful daily labor in the garden and elsewhere on the farm. We both celebrate the good and wonderful gifts from the Lord, His sun, rain and soil. Although these weeks are a busy harvest time preserving as much as we can from the orchard and the garden, too much of my own waking time is spent almost entirely within the confines of my skull.

I know that isn’t healthy. My body needs to lift and push and pull and dig and toss, so I head outside to do farm and garden chores. This physical activity gives me the opportunity to be “in the moment” and not crushed under “what was, what is, what needs to be and what possibly could be” — all the processing that happens mostly in my head.

I’m grateful for this tenuous balance in my life, knowing as I do that I was never cut out to be a good full time farmer. I sometimes feel that shining glow in the moments of “living it now” rather than dwelling endlessly in my mind about the past or the future.

Thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord. I am learning to let those harvest moments shine.

Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here

As Much Serenity As Yearning

Last night I walked the woods
lit by the final moon of the month.
Days don’t count here
beneath the centuries-old pines
where my grandmother took her solace
on hard farm days, passing up
the washboard or jam-making
for the eternal whooshing
of the forest as much serenity
as yearning.
~Dave Malone, “Walk in the Woods” from Tornado Drill

My grandparents owned the land,
worked the land, bound
to the earth by seasons of planting
and harvest.

They watched the sky, the habits
of birds, hues of sunset,
the moods of moon and clouds,
the disposition of air.
They inhaled the coming season,
let it brighten their blood
for the work ahead.

Soil sifted through their fingers
imbedded beneath their nails
and this is what they knew;
this rhythm circling the years.
They never left their land;
each in their own time
settled deeper.
~Lois Parker Edstrom “Almanac” from Night Beyond Black.

My husband and I met in the late 70’s while we were both in graduate school in Seattle, living over 100 miles away from our grandparents’ farms farther north in Washington. We lived farther still from my grandparents’ wheat farm in Eastern Washington and his grandparents’ hog farm in Minnesota. One of our first conversations together, the one that told me I needed to get to know this man better, was about wanting to move back to work on the land. We were both descended from peasant immigrants from the British Isles, Holland and Germany – farming was in our DNA, the land remained under our fingernails even as we sat for endless hours studying in law school and medical school classes.

When we married and moved north after buying a small farm, we continued to work full time at desks in town. We’ve never had to depend on this farm for our livelihood, but we have fed our family from the land, bred and raised livestock, and harvested and preserved from a large garden and orchard. It has been a good balance thanks to career opportunities made possible by our education, something our grandparents would have marveled was even possible.

Like our grandparents, we watch in wonder at what the Creator brings to the rhythm of the land each day – the light of the dawn over the fields, the activity of the wild birds and animals in the woods, the life cycles of the farm critters we care for, the glow of the evening sun as night enfolds us when the moon ascends.

We are blessed by the land’s generosity when it is well cared for. Each new day promises another chance to treat it with the love it warrants.

Now forty-some years after that first conversation together about returning to farming, my husband and I hope we never have to leave the land. It brought us together, fed our family, remains imbedded under our fingernails and in our DNA.

Each in our own time, we will settle even deeper.

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The Heart’s Need

About living in the country?
…peace can deafen one, beauty surprise
No longer.  There is only the thud
Of the slow foot up the long lane
At morning and back at night.
~R.S. Thomas from “The Country”

…once when he was walking
Along a lane in spring he was deceived
By a shrill whistle coming through the leaves;
Wait a minute, wait a minute-four swift notes;
He turned, and it was nothing, only a Thrush
In the thorn bushes easing its throat.
He swore at himself for paying heed,
The poor hill farmer, so often again
Stopping, staring, listening, in vain,
His ear betrayed by the heart’s need.
~R.S.Thomas from “The Lonely Farmer”

I must not forget my heart’s need:
my utter astonishment
at the beauty around me
even on the hottest and sweatiest of days,
even on the grayest and wettest of days,
while trudging the darkened barnyard path
to attend, although weary, to chores.

If ever I fail to see
what is right in front of me,
this grace-given gift
to my eyes and ears and heart,
I do not deserve to put on boots
or hold a pitchfork.

Farmer with a pitchfork by Winslow Homer

He knows every stone that’s been struck by the plow
There’s a pile by the barn by the sweat of his brow
The land has his heart and he rarely complains
And it holds his knees when he prays for rain

He’s a dusty old carhartt and the light in the barn
He’ll work the late hours and he’s up before dawn
Every man has a story and the story goes on
From grandad’s eyes to a new born son

Why I farm is in my blood, like the sunlight is on my skin
Is who I meant to be, is who I’ve always been
Is more than just a living, it’s my way of life
And it grows like seed inside my heart
That’s why I farm

We always pull through when we thought we would break
In the flood ’93, in the draught ’88
The Lord has his timing ’cause only he knows
That when next year comes the crops will grow
Find more lyrics at 

Tough the world may shake around me, still I am stable
For as long as I am able, I’ll work this way
‘Cause when heaven comes this close to what you’re holding
This life is but a moment in a bigger plan
~The Henningsens

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Summer Nap

In the afternoon of summer, sounds
come through the window: a tractor
muttering to itself as it

Pivots at the corner of the
hay field, stalled for a moment
as the green row feeds into the baler.

The wind slips a whisper behind
an ear; the noise of the highway
is like the dark green stem of a rose.

From the kitchen the blunt banging
of cupboard doors and wooden chairs
makes a lonely echo in the floor.

Somewhere, between the breeze
and the faraway sound of a train,
comes a line of birdsong, lightly
threading the heavy cloth of dream.

~Joyce Sutphen, “Soundings” from Naming the Stars

As a young child, I remember waking from my summer afternoon naps to the sights and sounds of our rural community. I could hear tractors working fields in the distance, farm trucks rumbling by on the road, the cows and horses in the fields, a train whistle in the distance and the ever-present birdsong from dawn to dusk.

These were the sounds of contentment and productivity, both together. Surely this is how heaven must be: always a sense of something wonderful happening, always a reason to celebrate, always a profound sense of respite and sanctuary.

Even now, there is that moment of awakening of my heart and soul from a summer nap when I try to listen for the chorus of angels outside my open window.

photo by Harry Rodenberger

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Where All the Berries Grow

Berry picking is a lesson in perspective:
I would miss most of the fruit
if I refused to lower my eyes,
then stoop and bend.

I push aside leaves and canes
to find the round and juicy globes,
gently pulling the berries
until they fall into my palm.
~Janet Ruth Heller, from “Picking Raspberries: Learning Perspective from  Nature’s Olympics

Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb,
Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum
In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!
And all ripe together, not some of them green
And some of them ripe!  You ought to have seen!

I wish I knew half what the flock of them know
Of where all the berries and other things grow,
Cranberries in bogs and raspberries on top
Of the boulder-strewn mountain, and when they will crop.
~Robert Frost from “Blueberries”

We live in the middle of a county with bountiful berries this time of year, both wild and farmed.

Just as sweet cherries are disappearing from the orchards and strawberry harvest finished a few weeks ago, now raspberries are going strong for almost three weeks and blueberries are hanging in heavy branch-busting clusters begging for relief.  Domesticated marion blackberries are already in the berry stands, but the wild evergreen and Himalaya wild blackberries are about two weeks from harvesting.  Local currants are shiny and glistening. 

It is truly a miracle to live within a few miles of all this lovely fruit, with many of them growing wild in our own back yards and woodlands.

There are still wild strawberries in close-to-the-ground crawling vines with little roundish-shaped berries with a slightly tart taste, far more savory than the standard sweet juice laden market strawberry.  Thimble berries hang from wild bushes – salmon colored, red and black varieties.  Orange huckleberries grow wild in the low lands, and purple huckleberries are happiest up in the foothills, a great treasure find for hikers.  Most highly prized, however, are the sweet tiny wild blackberries that are ripening on gentle winding vines right now at the edges of the woods and fences, as well as in roadside ditches or around tree stumps.  They command huge prices per pound because it takes such effort to find and pick them.

As a child of the Pacific Northwest, growing up on a farm with both wild and domesticated berry vines and bushes, this was simply part of summer as I knew it.  I watched the blossoms, then the forming fruit, then watched as the color would get just right, waiting to pick until the precise moment of ripeness before the birds would beat me to it.  I also picked in the local fields as a summer job, including wild blackberries from our own woods, for 3 cents a pound.  For the sweet wild blackberries, a yield of 75 cents was an exceptionally great day.

I preferred blueberry picking most of all.  When I now put a blueberry in my mouth, I transport back to those summer days that started at 6 AM, walking down the road to the neighbor’s berry field with pungent smelling peat ground converted from swamp to productive berry farm before the legislation that now prevents messing with wetlands.  The bushes were tall, towering over my head, providing shade in the hot sweaty July  sun.  The berry clusters were easy to find, there were no thorns to shred sleeves and skin, and the berries made a very satisfying *plink* when they hit the empty pail.  They didn’t smush, or bruise, and didn’t harbor many bees, spider webs or ugly bugs.  They were refreshingly sweet and rejuvenating when a quick snack was in order.   I wasn’t even aware, as I am now, that blueberries contain anthocyanins and other antioxidant chemicals believed to be helpful in preventing the growth of cancer cells.   In short, blueberries were perfect then, and they are perfect now.

There are now so many raspberry and blueberry fields in our county,  the price per pound has dropped and the market is sometimes shaky and it is a bigger challenge to find berry pickers.  A few years ago one farmer put a full page ad in the local newspaper today, begging the public to come pick his ripe blueberries at 99 cents a pound, just to get them off his bushes.  I stopped by another farm’s roadside stand and chatted with the Sikh owner and his three young sons as they measured out my 5 pounds of luscious blueberries.  He was philosophical about the low prices, explaining he was a patient man, and he hoped the bushes would yield blue gold for his family for a very long time, even if some years are low price years.

As a fellow farmer, I am aware of how one’s carefully tended crops can go to waste, whether it is due to weather or pests or the vagaries of the market.  I hope our berry farmers can persist through the hard times so the exquisite perfection of a local berry bounty can continue in such variety of colors, shapes and sizes, even some as big as the end of your thumb.

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Freedom: Being Easy in the Harness

photo by Joel DeWaard
Photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard

I find my greatest freedom on the farm.
I can be a bad farmer or a lazy farmer and it’s my own business.
What is my definition of freedom?
It’s being easy in your harness.

~Robert Frost in 1954, at a news conference on the eve of his 80th birthday

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard

Little soul,
you and I will become
the memory
of a memory of a memory.
A horse
released of the traces
forgets the weight of the wagon.
~Jane Hirshfield “Harness”

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard

The past was faded like a dream; 
There come the jingling of a team, 
A ploughman’s voice, a clink of chain, 
Slow hoofs, and harness under strain. 
Up the slow slope a team came bowing

O wet red swathe of earth laid bare,
O truth, O strength, O gleaming share,
O patient eyes that watch the goal,
O ploughman of the sinner’s soul.
O Jesus, drive the coulter deep
To plough my living man from sleep…


That Christ was standing there with me, 
That Christ had taught me what to be, 
That I should plough, and as I ploughed 
My Saviour Christ would sing aloud, 
And as I drove the clods apart 
Christ would be ploughing in my heart, 
Through rest-harrow and bitter roots, 
Through all my bad life’s rotten fruits.

Lo, all my heart’s field red and torn,
And Thou wilt bring the young green corn,
And when the field is fresh and fair
Thy blessed feet shall glitter there,
And we will walk the weeded field,
And tell the golden harvest’s yield,
The corn that makes the holy bread
By which the soul of man is fed,
The holy bread, the food unpriced,
Thy everlasting mercy, Christ.
~John Masefield from The Everlasting Mercy

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard

We historically have shouldered much burden
in our pursuit of happiness and freedom;
it’s worth every ounce of sweat,
every sore muscle,
every drop of blood,
every tear.

We forget the weight of the plow
as it turns over the earth
where someday we will rest as dust.

The soil of our hearts is well-tilled,
yielding to the plowshare
digging deep with the pull of the harness.
The furrow straight and narrow.

Although we are tread upon
yet do we bloom;
though we are turned upside down
yet we produce bread.

Plowing brings freshness to the surface,
a new face upturned to the cleansing dew,
knots of worms making our simple dust fertile.

Plow deep our hearts this day
of celebrating freedom in You, Dear Lord.
Let us remember to worship You, and not ourselves.

May we plow, sow, grow,
gather and harvest what is needed
to feed your vast and hungry children
everywhere.

photo by Joel DeWaard
photo by Joel DeWaard

Thank you once again to Joel DeWaard, local farmer, craftsman and photographer, who graciously shares his photos of the Annual International Lynden (Washington) Plowing Match

Whatcha gonna do when the plowin’s done?
Workin’ all day in the heat of the sun
The game’s been caught; the bread’s been won
Whatcha gonna do when the plowin’s done?

What I’m gonna do when the plowin’s done
Is take some time just to have some fun
Say the barn-dance just begun
That’s where I’m goin’ when the plowin’s done

Whatcha gonna do when the daylight’s gone
Twilight settles and the shade grows long
The whippoorwill sings his favorite song
Whatcha gonna do when the daylight’s gone?

What I’m gonna do when the daylight’s gone
Is take you to the dance if you’ll come along
The down-home past time can’t go wrong
That’s what I’m doing when the daylight’s gone

Whatcha gonna do when the moonlight’s gone
And dewdrops settle on the farmer’s lawn
I’m gonna stay right here and dance till dawn
That’s what I’m doing when the moonlight’s gone

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Washing Dishes By Hand

Even the mundane task of washing dishes by hand is an example of the small tasks and personal activities that once filled people’s daily lives with a sense of achievement.
~B.F. Skinner, behavioral psychologist

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 scrubbing sponges, the white cotton dishtowels and the plastic dishrack.

Let’s start tonight.

And I think it is your turn first…

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