I was putting away some dish towels not so long ago and realized what I had was a grim excuse for a tea towel drawer. Nothing ironed, many with holes, and even more that I could spit through (my mother’s phrase). Not at all like the drawer in our aunt’s house, the one in my memory and the one before she died in 2013 at age 94.
Our aunt Eleanor was a dish doing pro. She had gear – a half apron, rubber gloves and hand cream, all befitting the single career woman that she was. When she was 75 she impulsively bought her first place. It had a dishwasher – her first. I remember my mother had to buy her dishes that could go in it because all Eleanor had was fine bone china edged in delicate gold and cut glass crystal. So the era of wet lettuce floating through her fingers was gone.
At the height of her dish-doing days she knew her way around the sink. She was known in our family as being the best for the job. People don’t cultivate the best dishwasher honour anymore. The pride over chores is gone, burnt along with the bra. But with her rubber gloves, Eleanor could make the water really hot. For streak-free results we dryers (usually me and my sisters) were encouraged to get in there right away with our fresh linen tea towels. Even with three dryers we’d have to work quickly to keep up. She was fast and efficient. She rewashed the few ‘rejects’ (her term) we sent back and never scolded us if, on the rare occasion, something got broken. Instead, Eleanor gave it a requiem, told us a story about its service, all the while washing and rinsing the next ones.
When a towel was wet through, and so of no use, it was hung over the back of a chair to dry and we took another from the drawer. There were always lots, all neatly pressed and folded, all with something to say. Choosing was a micro perk, an employee incentive. The house was full of these kinds of pleasure choices. Whatever the occasion, we were invited to choose what we’d like to use – the fruit nappies, the plate with butterflies, the seagull pitcher, the velvet blue cup and saucer, whatever our fancy. Eleanor’s china cabinet held a lifetime of my shifting tastes.
As for the linen tea towels, there was the one with the Welsh cakes recipe that no one thought to try, either because Welsh cakes held no interest or tea towel recipes had no credibility. Or the one with the Australian flowers, wattles and waratahs, or the one with the points of a horse (point #19 is the bit just above the hoof and called the coronet). These towels were often souvenirs from trips abroad – so and so went there; did you know their oldest is nursing in Pangnirtung? It was a much gentler conversation than the passionate dinner discussion we had just pulled away from, which we could hear from the dining room and intermittently editorialize from our post. Dishes with Eleanor was methodical yet pleasant.
The way she went at the job was a glimpse into the success of her downtown office life as the top secretary for a large lumber company – no job was too menial for precision and order. Occasionally we’d discuss other dish-doing methods we had heard about. And while we were curious about those people who didn’t stack the dishes first or who washed the cutlery before the glassware, we weren’t about to try something we knew made no sense. Greasy stuff first? What could those people be thinking? If someone was hauling or pumping that water and then heating it, which I assume is the root of our familial dishes method, it would have been in their interest to make the water last as long as possible.
Dirty dishes from a family dinner requires at least one change of suds and changing it is a break in drying action, seen as a secret signal among dryers to disappear – maybe into the living room, today to the bathroom (probably never the outhouse) – then to be rooted out when production resumed. Often we’d loose someone to the main party. You can’t afford to have too many of these interruptions.
As domestic chores go, dishes aren’t so bad. I don’t mean like Little House on the Prairie, those eight full length novels about the glory of flawless housework being the sole worth of a woman. But doing the dishes is one of the more artful chores, a convivial task with people, meditative with one. It signals the end of a cycle of kitchen work and permission to sit soft, a lovely phrase from our grandmother that Eleanor always used. Sitting soft was our reward for a job well done.
I wrote this in 2010 when my aunt was still alive. She read it but was either embarrassed or thought it wasn’t a thing to write about. Probably the latter. To her, people wrote about trips on ocean liners (which she actually did) and hole-in-ones (which she actually got), not about doing the dishes. But never underestimate the everyday.