EVERY MORNING and every evening, I walk alone through the darkened halls of one of the most famous museums in the world. The cultural collection here is one of the world’s largest, and millions of visitors walk these halls each year in the daylight hours. Every day, they press up against the glass, leaving streaks on the panes as they try to get as close as possible to cultures long gone. Beyond the glass lie ceremonial garb, bits of armor, implements of war, and funerary objects. There are pipes and arrowheads, sleds and axes, jewels and spears. The tools of war and trade and ceremony are plenty, but those of domesticity are few. There are some grinding stones, a few less-fine baskets, and the ruined frame of a centuries-old cradleboard. Nothing else remains of the daily lives of these people—of the daily lives of their women.
Every morning and every evening, I walk past these displays, and each morning, a woman is wiping away the streaks and prints of yesterday’s crowds with a ragged cloth. Every evening, another woman runs a vacuum over the trampled carpet in preparation for tomorrow’s hoard of children, nannies, teachers, tourists, and students. Neither the cleaning women nor the crowds of visitors will ever get any closer to those long-dead people than the glass permits, and I—though I pass them by every evening—I won’t either. I’ve long since stopped trying. I hardly even look anymore. I let the arrowheads fly by on the periphery of awareness, and bid the cleaning lady good morning.
Every morning I consult my closet and my jewelry box. Some of my clothes are too worn to wear anywhere but around the house, and some have never been worn at all. I have a dress of Grandma’s that will never fit me, but comforts me to own. It grows steadily older and more musty in its bag in the back of my wardrobe. Her jewelry, though, is in high polish. I have rings and earrings and a pendant or two to remember her by. Some mornings I put her ring on one hand, my other grandmother’s bracelet on the opposite wrist, and walk the streets of New York hand in hand in hand with the spirits of each of my matriarchs. Funnily enough, though these pieces are the most accessible remembrances I have of my grandmothers, I can’t remember ever seeing them wear them. Perhaps they thought these things too precious for every day.
Every evening I step off the subway, walk a ways home, climb the stairs to my apartment, and slowly slip off ceremony, along with my jewelry. At home, I can retreat behind my windows and shades, sink into soft, worn fabrics, and relax into daily, comforting tasks. I often find my husband there before me, slightly hunched over the stove, dishtowel slung over one shoulder, delicately sampling his latest supper offering. I kiss him hello, his favorite worn-to-softness T-shirt under my hands one of my most beloved textures, followed closely by the gentle brush of his hair against my cheek. Sometimes I pull the dishcloth from his shoulder, drape the slightly-damp fabric across spread fingers, and take my place beside him at the sink. It is then, safely encapsulated in the mundane tasks that make up domesticity, that I most remember Grandma—for it is she who taught me to do dishes.
Every Sunday, for the better part of twenty-five years, my family trekked to Grandma’s house for after-church dinner. In the early days, when my grandpa was still alive, and Grandma still invested in all the trappings of Sunday dinner—fully set table, matching glasses, side dishes, the “good” salt and pepper shakers, and of course, some kind of meat to be carved with great ceremony—we all sat together around her dining room table, and I’d cringe with each new dish she set out at the idea of how many dishes would have to be done when all this was over. My back began to ache just thinking about it.
When all the pomp and circumstance of dinner was through, Grandma and I would repair to the kitchen, and watch with (only partially) feigned horror as my little brothers brought in stacks of dirty dishes. (They weren’t old enough then to have the honor of being Grandma’s sink sidekick—just old enough to rub teasing salt into my wounds—but their time, too, would come.) Those stacks would be placed in and beside the sink, the basin filled with just-short-of scalding water, and I would solemnly select my preferred instrument from Grandma’s drawer of dishcloths: the “Wednesday” cloth. Wednesday, full of woe and water, depicted an embroidered, be-slickered girl splashing across a corner of the cloth under the protection of a pink umbrella. Stitched, like the rest of the set, onto a sturdy old Aunt Jemima flour sack, “Wednesday” might not have been better than “Tuesday” at soaking up dishwater, and certainly “Sunday” would have been the correct choice, if one is into accuracy, but I was attached to that umbrella girl, and took her with me, every time, into the fray.
Those afternoons at the sink with Grandma taught me much more than how to do dishes. She told me stories of her girlhood, talked about the artifacts of her life that occupied the shelves around us, answered my questions about the African violets growing on the windowsill, showed me how to handle fragile things, and taught me how to snap my brothers’ behinds with that rolled-up Wednesday cloth. We stood side-by-side, at first unevenly, and later, hip-to-hip, our wet, soapy hands passing love and knowledge one to the other, along with dripping dishes.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned at Grandma’s sink was when to just let things soak. We’d get through all the plates and glasses, all the bowls and gravy boats. The knives we’d handle with care, and drop the silverware with a clatter to rinse under the stream of too-hot water. With nary a dry inch left on Wednesday, we’d look at the big, greasy roasting pan, regard each other with solemnity, and confer on whether or not we should tackle it, too, or just let it be. Sometimes we were feeling full of stamina, and other times we ached. Sometimes there was fun going on in the family room, and sometimes everyone was dozing. Sometimes things were rather nastily baked on, and sometimes it was more bark than bite. Grandma would weigh these factors with a spark in her eye before she almost invariably pronounced that “this one needs to soak.” I would, of course, agree. Life was going by outside the kitchen, and that pot would still be there when we got back. As she rinsed out the sink and set the pot to soaking, I’d snap my towel a few times, enjoying the fine mist it sent up against my heated cheeks, and carefully drape it over the rack to dry. The kitchen lights would go out, and Grandma and I would go find the rest of the family.
As the years went by, especially after my grandfather died and Grandma got too tired to go through all the ceremony of Sunday, the stacks of dishes grew smaller, until they were practically nonexistent. My brothers grew big enough to have their turn at the sink, but they had no respect for Wednesday. I got married and moved across the country, and Sunday dinner at Grandma’s became, almost wrenchingly, a thing of the past. When Grandma died a few years later, and my mother asked me what I’d like of hers, I requested a certain lamp (a story all its own), a door knocker (yet another story), a few bits of jewelry, some books, and a set of those dishtowels. But by then, they (as dishtowels tend to be) were gone.
Except they weren’t, quite.
My mother recently unearthed three full sets of them (alas, none of them with umbrella girls), yellowing with age and disuse at the bottom of Grandma’s cedar chest, where she must have placed them some twenty years before. They had survived only because no one remembered they were there. My mother kept a set, one went to my sister, and the last came to me, my bequest complete.
Except that they came with a dilemma attached.
My instinct was to take these precious artifacts of Grandma’s—and my—life and lock them away in my own chest of memories, along with my other grandmother’s handkerchiefs, my wedding slippers, and my baby blanket. I wanted to keep them safe, keep them young, keep them whole. Grandma was gone, but memory was made physical through those old, embroidered flour sacks, and I didn’t want to tear them or sully them with dirty dishes.
Except that dirty dishes are exactly what those memories were made of to begin with.
Something in me resisted putting the cloths away in a chest, safe but forgotten, or putting them behind glass as if they were artifacts of a bygone era rather than tools meant to build homes and relationships. I thought of my other inheritances. So much of the enjoyment I get out of putting on Grandma’s jewelry, or looking at the porcelain figurine I inherited from my great grandmother, or wearing my dad’s old slippers is that each time I use these things, I think of their original owners. A flash of memory as an earring slides in. A smile as I draw a finger across a delicate surface. Curling my toes into thoughts of home.
But what of dishtowels?
We all know what happens to them. Dirt and disintegration are inevitable. Eventually, they beginneth to stink. Some things are made to be looked at. Some things are meant to be used delicately and last forever. Some things are meant to be knocked about in play for years. Dishtowels are not among these things. Dishtowels are meant to be used—but not forever. They are meant to be used to death—not beyond it.
The final lesson Grandma imparted to me through her dishtowels seems to be that the domestic world is a fleeting, physical one, built of fabrics that wear thin, and voices that wear even thinner—until, finally, they are gone. The lessons of this world are passed from hands and mouths rather than from books and discs. Its artifacts rarely survive to be imprisoned behind museum glass. God willing, I might someday stand side-by-side—at first unevenly, and later, hip to hip—with my own children and grandchildren, and teach them the lessons of this domestic life. The ritual. The repetition. The touching. The fabrics that wear away into soft-focus memory, until there is nothing left except to turn and whisper those memories to the child at your hip.
But just then, I began to think of compromises. As the great museum for which I work must do every day, I began to try to satisfy the demands of preservation as well as those of access. I thought of framing the towels, but I didn’t want to put them beyond touch behind glass. I was advised to turn them into cuddly pillows, or use them as patches for a quilt, but my domestic skills are currently limited to the drying of dishes. I thought of hanging one in the kitchen and promising myself I’d never use it, but I’m not that good with boundaries. And anyway, what I really wanted to do was use them. To feel the memories slide through my mind like so much damp cloth through my fingers. To feel that sense of quiet satisfaction as I carefully hang the cloth to dry and turn out the kitchen lights.
For now, I’ve taken out Thursday. I’ve locked the rest away in my chest, and made my first, uneven stitches on a new cloth that might someday be Thursday’s replacement. Maybe someday I’ll be able to recreate something like that irresistible little umbrella girl of my memories. For now, she has faded beyond my reach, and I have moved a bit beyond Wednesday anyhow.
Every Thanksgiving, day of feasts and seemingly insurmountable stacks of dishes, I’ll pull out Thursday and give it a twirl. I’ll snap it against my husband’s behind, raising a fine mist along with his yowl. Eventually, there will be someone new to hand the dishes to, along with the cloth and its stories.
This Thanksgiving, I plowed alone through a pile of dishes and cried a bit into my new, old towel. The damp sackcloth has a particular feel and smell that raised more memories than I could easily wipe away. Standing alone in my own kitchen, with my own life artifacts cluttering the shelves around me, I clattered through the silverware thinking of African violets, ran the water a bit too hot, and lovingly dried every last dish.
It needed to soak.