Everyone who likes to wash dishes, stand up! Please don’t knock each other over when you do. I’m not a fan either. But I do have some moments when I wish those times had never ended. Those were the times I felt close to the person I was doing dishes with. I felt warm inside and established a bond, while not sacred, gave me an insight to someone else’s feelings and made me grow as a person.
When I was a senior in high school, I worked as a kitchen maid in a nursing home. It wasn’t so bad. I set the tables in the dining room, helped to serve food and cleaned up once everyone had finished. Trust me, it was hard work, but I didn’t mind. I was excited to have my first real job and make my own money. The cooks and the other maids were okay, even though they only spoke Norwegian with just a smattering of English. There wasn't much communication, but it didn’t matter. I was getting paid. (What I won’t do for a buck!)
In December, for St. Lucy’s Day, they dressed me in a white flowing gown with a crown of candles to pass out goodies to help celebrate. Did I tell you the candles were lit? I held my head high that day.
Coincidentally, that year my class had to go on a weekend retreat at the convent of the motherhouse. This was the main headquarters of the nuns who taught us. As this was a Catholic school, the retreat was suppose to be a time for reflection, to get ready to graduate and go out into the world. The Friday evening of the retreat, I found myself helping Sister Nathaniel clean the kitchen and do the dishes.
As this was an old convent, there was no dishwasher. Everything was done by hand. Sister washed and I dried. There were about 40 people at dinner, so it was a long task. Sister Nathaniel was close to 90 years old and still a spry spring chicken. She had entered the religious life at 18 and told me she never looked back.
As we washed and dried the dishes, she told me about her life. She was the youngest of ten children. Back then, she lived on a farm and used to help with baking bread and canning food. When she was a little girl, she always felt a calling from God. She became a teacher and reminisced about her days teaching school during World War II.
I asked her what it was like then, compared to the Vietnam War. She told me that people went to church and stormed heaven with their prayers, for their loved ones fighting overseas. Families were closer and shared with their neighbors. She dreaded when someone in the neighborhood got a telegram because it was never good news. Almost everyone had stars in their windows showing that someone in the house was fighting the war.
She told me about the air raid drills and listening to radio shows that were interrupted when there was news from Europe or the South Pacific. As she spoke, I saw someone other than a nun who still wore the old habit. I saw a person who lived in a time when there was fear and worry, but yet took the time to comfort her seventh grade class.
This was a woman who took the time to know her neighbors and tried to bring some part of security in life. She was someone who had seen many changes in the church and still was faithful. There were no Folk Masses in her time. The service was in Latin and people knew that no matter what, you went to church on Sunday to worship God. She lived during the Cold War and was one of the protesters of the Rosenbergs execution for treason in the fifties. She lived a history I had only read about.
That evening by the sink, Sister washing and I drying. It was an evening spent in contentment and closeness. For the first time, I really paid attention to someone else’s life and felt richer for it. I think I could feel myself growing up. I soaked up all her wisdom at that sink, saving it for another moment in time. I hated to dry the last dish; it meant our time was over. I saw Sister throughout my senior year, but that moment never happened again.
The dishwashing trend continued a few years later in college. I had a friend named Julie from an Orthodox Jewish family whose grandmother and parents were Holocaust survivors. Julie’s grandma was the heart and soul of the family.
When a group of us came during the week to study, Grandma always baked cookies and made sure that we were well-fed during our study sessions. One night, after we had finished, I was drying dishes while Grandma washed. She told me about her life as a little girl in Hungary.
She was a mother of five children when the Nazis came. All she had left was Julie’s father. She survived because she was a seamstress. Her concentration camp had the people make uniforms for soldiers. Her children were dragged away from her. She watched her husband sent to the gas chamber. I don’t remember how she found Julie’s father when the war was over.
As we were finishing up, the doorbell rang. When Julie opened the door, there was a policeman. Before the man could open his mouth, Grandma grabbed a broom blocking the policeman and screaming to us to jump out the back window and run. She screamed at the policeman telling him “Not this time! Not this time!” With everyone yelling at once, I pushed my way to the door, getting between Grandma and the policeman.
“Grandma, give me the broom, please, it’s all right” I begged her.
“They took us away before, I couldn’t save them,” she told me, still brandishing the broom. “They’re not going to do it again!”
“Lady please, I just want to know if the car across the street belongs to anyone here,” the policeman said in exasperation. “I hate working this area,” he mumbled to himself.
I looked out and told him. “It doesn’t belong to anyone here. Be nice, this woman was in a concentration camp. She’s scared, “I scolded him.
“That’s all I wanted to know,” he said sarcastically. “Everyone in this whole neighborhood is like her.”
“Have mercy, you didn’t lose most of your family to murderers,” I shot back at him as I held Grandma whose body was shaking.
With a grunt, the policeman turned and left, leaving us at the doorway. Julie and her mother took Grandma and walked her back to the kitchen. I sent the study group home, in shock over the scene they had just witnessed.
I went back to the kitchen where I saw Grandma at the sink. I picked up a dish towel and dried the dishes that she had rewashed again. I guess she needed something to clean the memory away.
“I did my best,” Grandma said over and over as she scoured the forks.
“Yes Grandma, you did,” I assured her.
Sometimes, washing dishes isn’t just about washing dishes. It can be washing your soul too.
I love my friend, Laura's story because it shows how sometimes, a mundane task in life can teach you about your own soul. You can walk away from a simple task like washing dishes, richer from the experience. I am grateful she sent it to me. She won the Writers Digest Contest 2018 she entered it in. She has been a faithful member of our church for many years. We have come to love her dearly and makes us laugh, frequently. She is married for 42 years to her husband and they have 2 adult sons and 1 grandchild, a sweet 14-month old just beginning to walk. Laura enjoys writing witty short stories for the Staten Island Advance, The Nursing Spectrum and has won the Rider's Digest 2019 award. A midwife for 35 years in Brooklyn, she delivered over 1,000 babies during that time.