Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Number 152: Susan Meyers "Mother, Washing Dishes"
Mother, Washing 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.
Hap Notes: In spite of the invention of the dishwasher (the dishwasher has gone through many different types since the late 1800s but they were fairly common in homes by the 1970s), I don't know how many people actually use them. They are water and energy efficient but they don't seem to work as well as a scrubby sponge and some hot water in the sink. I don't think I am unusual in washing my dishes by hand. Dishwashing liquid maintains brisk sales.
A window over the kitchen sink, at least when I was a kid, was a big selling point for a house, seeing as how one would spend a good deal of time there, peeling vegetables and washing dishes and getting water. I've lived in homes and apartments without a window over the kitchen sink but there's a dull, blocked, almost brutal feel about staring at a wall while one does dishes. My sister and I always did the dishes and there was no window over the sink. My mom put up a little curio shelf over the sink but it's just not the same as being able to gaze out the window.
Meyers' poem has two (at the very least) interesting things to ponder. First, how the poet and her sister say they would train their children to do the dishes so they will not end up like mom with the red knuckles from kitchen work and the dishwater filled with the bits and pieces of the meal's endings on the plates. There's a reversal in this poem, then, when the poet figures out why mom would want to do the dishes. I suppose I should mention that a "dish rag" was more often used than a sponge years ago, and instead of "Scotchbrite" there were Brillo pads and steel wool.
For some reason doing the dishes is one of the foulest chores of childhood (especially at my house. My dad, a who did his share of dishes while serving in the Navy, ran the water for us to insure it was hot enough and he had a specific order in which the dishes must be done: glassware, silverware, plates, change the water to scalding hot again, serving dishes, pots and pans. We hated doing the dishes and the water was so hot my sister and I would use a drinking glass to reverse-telescope in the foamy water so as not to handle the hot silverware for too long before throwing it into the hot rinse water.)
Secondly, there's an interesting phrase in the poem that touches on something about the kitchen window- the poet's mother's "guarding" of her place at the window. Not only is it the place where she can look out and dream but it's a place from which you can see the world, the helm of the house, so to speak, at least in the poet's home where one can see the school buses and the mailman. The vantage point of the window is a place to see the beauty and regular humming of the world around her as she works. It's a poignant look at how women made an advantage of their often difficult house work as well as a charming feel of all the "machinery" of life whirring along as one does their job.
My mother's hands, when I was growing up, in spite of my sister and I doing the dishes, were always a bit red and rough and slightly redolent of chopped onion when she would sit on the edge of the bed and tuck us in at night. I loved that smell. And you know, I still do the dishes in that specific order. We learn things as we get older that change our perspective on what it means to be an adult. In Meyer's poem today, she figures out something about her mom that she would never have understood as a child.
We have already talked about Meyers here: happopoemouse.blogspot.com/2011/04/number-129-susan-meyers-hat-of-many.html