This is the piece I read for Listen To Your Mother Boston, on April 26, 2014.
There are few things in life that I can say with one hundred percent certainty that I excel in doing. But I am truly excellent at cleaning my kitchen.
Seriously. I’m a decent wife, a pretty good mom, can do a solid job at the office. But my best work is with a spray bottle, a paper towel, and an green apple martini-colored counter top.
I trained long and hard to become the champion dish-doer that I am today, under the tutelage of my own mother, who took no prisoners when it came to leaving a clean kitchen at the end of the day. I spent many teenage evenings at the sink, the epicenter of it all, in our U-shaped counter configuration in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. With hands tired from outlining history chapters or struggling through geometry proofs, I did the dishes and learned my mother’s ways. The careful stacking of items in the dishwasher and on the drying rack. Which items needed more time to soak along the way. Countless washes of the fragile glass coffeepot from which I never drank a single cup of coffee, the heavy blue salad bowl we used almost every night in winter, the circular Tupperware for cantaloupe and watermelon in the summer. Like the sponge in my hand, I absorbed my mother’s strategies for soaking, scrubbing and stacking as well as her advice on my friends, my grades, and what I should do with the rest of my life.
The plan for the rest of my life that I internalized during those sessions was as follows: work hard to get into a good college, work hard at said college, get a good job, marry, have kids. So I did just that. I worked hard and I followed the plan.
Now, in my own home on any given day, I’m usually doing my best kitchen work between 7 and 8 pm. I’ve worked all day, spent an hour each way commuting on the Green Line, picked up my kids at school, opened the mail, supervised homework and settled television disputes before inhaling a dinner that’s usually been prepared by my husband. Prepared lovingly, I might add, but also while using every last pot, pan, utensil and appliance we own. Most days, there are breakfast dishes too, that have been waiting around for a dozen or so hours, and Tupperware containers from packed lunches.
This mess is the last thing that separates me from pajamas and my beloved bed. Part of me wants to cop out, do the minimum, let it wait for another day. But that’s not how my mother raised me, and so each night I clean.
First, put away the items in the drying rack and clean that section of the counter. Look for anything that might need to soak for a bit and fill it with hot water. Empty the dishwasher. Clean the far side of the counter that has no business getting dirty, but still seems to everyday. Load the dishwasher: glasses, plates, bowls and silverware. Often, even though it’s been years, I rejoice to be past baby bottles and sippy cups. I count the colored plastic plates, that set of six from IKEA that everyone has, and I worry about the pink plate that’s been lost somewhere along the way. With nothing left but the hand washing, I straighten my back and assume the commanding position in front of the sink.
Am I allowed to love my sink? Because I love my sink. My mother’s sink was small, porcelain, and divided into two sections, down the middle. I’d always end up with a wet shirt from trying to accommodate pans that were too large, and spent too much time scrubbing at stubborn stains in the porcelain. So when I had to renovate my own kitchen, along with those green apple martini counter tops, I found my dream sink. It is deep and wide and undivided, stainless steel and under-mounted so the counter top crumbs can be easily swept inside. I love my sink, but there’s just one problem.
That sink, which I acquired after working hard to get into a good college, working hard at said college, getting a good job, marrying, and having kids, is in a house here in Boston. Not Cleveland. Location was the only part of the plan upon which we hadn’t agreed. And so my careful following of the rest of the plan is nice, but I know my mother wishes I was a lot closer to home.
Sometimes, as I’m standing at my sink, I daydream that it would be fun for my mom to drop by right then. She’s six hundred miles away, so there is no dropping by, only carefully calculated visits every couple of years. But if she could, I’d make her a cup of tea, like I used to when I’d finished doing the dishes back in high school, and we’d sit chatting at the table just outside my very clean kitchen. And she would be proud of me--for the day’s success at work, the cute thing my children said or something else that would fit the guidelines of our careful life plan--and because the kitchen was clean.
I know that no matter what I accomplish in this life of mine, I am most like my mother when I am washing the dishes.
I am snapped out of my reverie by a well-timed run of the garbage disposal. In my house, the heavy wooden cutting board is usually the last item added to the drying rack. Without a dog to help, I sweep up any crumbs or trails of flour from the floor. I spray Simple Green across that one last stretch of counter top just to the right of the sink, wiping it down once-twice-three times until it’s dry. I refill my blue plastic cup of water, slip off my well-worn fake Crocs and turn off the light.
I am most like my mother when I am washing the dishes.
I am most like myself then too.