Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Dishwashing ladies

Even though I grew up in the supposedly "I am woman, hear me roar" 1970s, the sight of women clustered together in tiny kitchens, washing and drying dishes, was as familiar to me as the face of my doll or my place at the dinner table. It was a sight that concentrated itself in the summer, since that was when my 'city-slicker' family would load up the Maverick and drive to one-street, bowling alley-and-bar towns in North Dakota, obscure towns that sometimes even people from the state hadn't heard of, where the rows of alfalfa fields ran ruler-straight to the blazing white sky, and where kitchens roared like infernos as steaming jars of tomatoes were brought out of enormous black canners, in a time where air-conditioning meant sitting in front of the portable fan.

I remember those formica counters being full of dirty dishes brought in from picnic tables or dining tables. Piles of exotic dishes that now line antique store shelves, dishes like dainty relish and pickle plates made of pale pink bubbly Depression glass that held watermelon pickles and tomato jam, served with tiny forks, so at odds with a farmer's calloused dirt-encrusted fingers. Sugar bowls with gilded handles and cream pitchers shaped like cows. Thick, yet slightly translucent white coffee cups with sweet little crimson roses blooming on their sides. China, always china, devoid of its cupboard chilliness because it was actually used...worn into ordinary by being put on a table three times a day and holding countless scoops of potatoes and gravy. Paper plates were anathema, alien, or even worst of the worst, trashy.  Paper plates were not part of those kitchens, and only mysteriously appeared on the 4th of July when you came back smelling like the local swimming pool and scratched at your mosquito bites while eating fried chicken in the grass.

I remember Grandma's thermometer over her kitchen sink reading 110 plus. I remember sweat mixing with lemon-scented steam on her forehead as her hands plunged and scrubbed in a mound of suds. I remember women wearing lipstick the color of the pink and red petunias outside, and nylons and their church shoes, with their 'fancy' chiffon aprons tied over their good Sunday dresses. But what I remember most is their chatter and their conversation.

Here was where I heard terms like 'stitch in the ditch' (a quilting phrase) and I learned that the secret to making a fluffy omelet was to add just a little bit of milk. I saw recipe cards filled out, with Victorian lady penmenship--'oooh, just what DID you do to that jello salad---and learned the heartbreak of a whole batch of jelly not setting--'just use it as pancake syrup'-- or that crocheting was so much easier than knitting. I heard how my mom's waist was so 'oh so tiny' in her lacy hooped wedding dress and how her cheeks were so pink that she didn't wear even a drop of makeup. How that July day when she married my Dad was SO hot...the women chattered back and forth, reminiscing and exaggerating...opening cupboards and vigorously drying--completely oblivious to the fact that they were currently in a room that smelled like a scorching iron. They would cackle, truly like hens, over old jokes, and snap wet towels at each other and giggle and then complain about their health problems, or their friends' health problems, poor soul.  Memories and methods tumbling out in some sort of matronly tidal wave, from rolling out the perfect pie-crust (using lots of cold water), to the best vinegar rinse for the hair, to, well, the prime stuff, when things would get hushed and conspiratorial and the eventual tongue-clucking family scandals would be revealed or rehashed, where, despite my best efforts to be invisible, I would catch someone's eye and be sent out to play.

These women were too busy to be interested much in Betty Friedan's 'problem that had no name.' There were eggs to get and cows to milk. The men were outside, sitting in the shade of sparse windbreak trees, looking faintly bored and uncomfortable with conversation. The women would not only not have dreamed of joining their company, they wouldn't have wanted to. This was their 'old girls club', and it was a place in which I hoped to be initiated into. Unfortunately, it was not to the 'old girls' eventually faded into the nursing homes, and I came of age in a dreary empty world where women's gatherings in the kitchen revolved around multiple glasses of wine, complaints about child support and daycare and how much they hated their bosses.

So, I guess if there is anything specific this blog is about, it is about women washing dishes, the way they used to, when washing dishes was about so much more than doing dishes.  It is about sharing the tips they would have shared, back when being home wasn't a political football, or a really took care of people and it really, really mattered. It WAS their job, and believe it or not, they loved and they lived for it.    
(Image "Encounter with the June Cleaver Fairies" pastel on paper, Cory Jaeger-Kenat, 2000.)  

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