A friend of mine had a severe undiagnosed mental illness. No one knew this, and she didn’t want anyone to find out. Among other symptoms, she would lose time. Clocks did not help gauge the time she lost; all they did was tell the time. They couldn’t tell her whether her kids were home, at school, or on a camping trip with their dad. Clocks couldn’t tell her whether, if in the morning, people were late and bustling out the door, tripping on the throw rug on the way, or if they were relaxed, giggling at the funny faced pancakes she often made them. A clock pointing with its little hand at two and its big hand at twelve didn’t tell her whether her neighbor dropped in for coffee at ten and brought some wonderful cinnamon rolls to share, or whether the reverend that her husband had befriended dropped by around noon to chat about the girls’ confirmation, topping a home-rolled cigarette before he left. The chime of her mother’s grandfather clock didn’t tell her if her sister dropped by for dinner that night or if they had ice cream or green Jell-O with marshmallows in it for dessert. Her watch never told her if the kids were in trouble and were sent to bed early after finishing homework, or got to eat popcorn in front of the TV. But when it was very dark outside, she would do the dishes for the day, carefully inspecting and scraping off the encrusted food, and piece together her day. Sometimes she would take notes.
Growing up, I marked time by dishes too. They were the extension of cocktail hour. My parents would have a drink and we children would have soda. There would be hors d’oeurves of some sort, usually cheese and crackers, sometimes liverwurst or salami or, on occasion, cream cheese filled celery sticks. We sat around the fireplace. In winter my father coaxed kindling to burn, and we watched as sparks turned to flame and lapped at the edges of the logs. We would discuss our day, plans we had, questions of ethics and philosophy, poetry, and dreams. We always washed the cocktail dishes before sitting down to dinner. For us, it prolonged family time; only it seemed lighter with more levity and activity. Dinner, be it with table cloth and blue long-stemmed water glasses, or paper plates and plastic cups, was a time for continued reflection and discussion and, of course, my father always had an Irish joke or two to tell. (It was okay; our family was Irish.) After dinner, we did the dishes. My mother would usually wash, and we would dry, and the discussion continued. We were a very talkative family. During this time, the conversation would turn to more domestic concerns such as; what will we have for dinner tomorrow, will club soda really get cherry juice out of a white sweater, how can you tell if you are in love, will our neighbor, old Mrs. Davenport, really be all right in the nursing home she went to, can we have one of the kittens that Sara Beth’s cat had last week, and why do little girls have to go to bed at eight o’clock.
The dishes were part of every meal—even dessert and vegetables didn’t achieve that status. Mom did the morning dishes. When I came for lunch from school, she did the dishes almost while I ate. I chattered through lunch, and Mom had a cup of coffee, listened, and then washed the dishes. Doing the dishes was a constant, a dynamic breviary that defined the hours and times of the day and assured us of the continuation of our day, our conversations, our lives.
When I was in high school and we spent more at my grandmother’s house than our own, there were dishes and talks. In college, I supposed it was pre-ordained that I worked in the cafeteria dish room. And then, the chain was broken. As a young working mother, away from the family she grew up with and its traditions, I let go of the meaning built around this simple activity. I have vague and sporadic memories of my husband and I doing the dishes together—on rare occasions. But doing dishes ceased to be a ritual and became a chore. My children never experienced doing the dishes as a pleasurable or natural experience—no I take that back. We have pictures of my oldest daughter happily doing the dishes when she was two. But both children now see the task as something to avoid, to hurry through so they can do something else. I know that every life entails rituals, and my children have their own. I hope their rituals sustain them through time.
When I took care of mom, I once again did the dishes throughout the day. Mom often helped. At 101 and 102 she would come into the kitchen with her walker and ask if she should wash or dry. She should dry. On the days when I would hear her coming into the kitchen, I would hide three fourths of the dishes. It took a long time to get through the rest. On good days, she would reminiscence and perhaps tell a story. She might even insist upon wiping down the counter herself. On bad days, she would concentrate on the fork she was drying and worry that she couldn’t remember where to put it away. I treasured the both the good and bad days. We were doing the dishes together.
At 102 and 103 other, more personal and pressing rituals marking time took precedence, and doing the dishes receded and ebbed in importance. But my daughter visited for a week. And as she watched and helped me care for her grandmother, she made the observation, “You are always doing dishes. There are always dishes to do.”
Time passed. Mom died, and my daughter moved out with her partner. And at night, I wash the dishes and wipe the counters.
Lori Martin Brock
As a child, Lori Martin Brock periodically experienced what she termed as “Writer’s Fever”. When she had this malady, she would nest in the back of the family coat closet or behind the ladder leading to the attic and do nothing but write. Her mother would often have to drag her to the table for meals. Sadly, this fever was fleeting then, and visited less and less as Lori grew. But like many viruses, Writer’s Fever remained dormant in the host’s system, and although it has never again produced a full-blown attack, Lori has felt the shadows of the fever throughout her life.
Lori has written grants for non-profit organizations including: Art Access and United Cerebral Palsy of Utah. She has either contributed to or edited various newsletters Including the United Cerebral Palsy and the Utah Independent Living Center newsletters, and has published in the Salt Lake Community Writing Center’s Literary Magazine, Sine Cera.
She also co-founded and edited Desert Wanderings, the Art Access literary magazine that now focuses on teen writings. She has written and directed numerous plays for The Second West Acting Company, an accessible theater group.
Lori currently works as writing consultant for the Salt Lake Community Writing Center where she engages college students in conversations about their class writings and projects. Lori is a participant in the Salt Lake Community Writer’s group, and a participant of the Art Access Partners Artists Mentors Program.
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