Soak, Scrub, Rinse, Play: A Ritual Awash In Meaning

By Elizabeth Roca
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, February 4, 2008

My kids love to wash dishes. What more could a mother ask?

Actually, there's a lot more, like a full night's sleep and goop-free floors and uninterrupted hours in which to sit and read and write and watch the occasional episode of "House," but I'll take what I can get.

What I get, in this instance, is a group of small people who are happy to stand on a step-stool in front of the kitchen sink and pour and splash and rub every pan and plastic container in sight. They practically hum while they do it.

I like washing dishes myself. Not in any obsessive-compulsive way, mind you, and certainly not after every meal; that's what dishwashers are for. But there is a satisfaction in blasting the hot water, squirting the soap and watching the bubbles froth.

Come to think of it, the way I assess the pile of dirty items and pick them up in strict order (utensils first, then small containers, then pots and pans and colanders) could be considered a bit compulsive. My reaction if someone moves an object out of place -- What are you doing?!-- indicates a madness to my method.

But my motives are quickly explained. Since high school I've had joint pain in my hands; the heat soothes them. As far as my washing hierarchy goes, long experience has taught me that if you stack objects smallest to largest in the dish rack, they don't fall over so easily.

Here is a window on my personality: I like order and predictability. I like figuring out the most efficient way to perform mindless tasks, so that I can finish them quickly and get on to the good stuff, like bedtime and books and "House." I have small, chronic pains, but they're easily alleviated. This tells you most of what there is to know. It's pitiful, really, how I'm exposed by a minor chore.

As my children stand at the sink, I contemplate their small backs.

Two-year-old Camille puts her doll into the water along with the dishes and keeps up a reassuring murmur as she scrubs its plastic, beribboned head: "That's okay, baby; dood dirl." Last fall Camille's greatest terror was that her toys would be sucked down the bathtub drain, and even when I got into the tub with her she crouched against me, sobbing. Finally her father moved the action to a less intimidating venue -- the sink -- and showed her, time after time, that a floating toothbrush remained even after the water drained away. We let her fill the sink and drain it, pour soapy water over the counter and floor, and squirt the sprayer until she realized her mastery over the water, its slippery fluidity in relation to her solid 26 pounds. Now she's imparting her new confidence to her doll, and I see her somewhere in a foggy future, whispering the same loving reassurance to her own baby, dear to her as she is to me.

Jonah, just turned 4, also talks while he washes, but his is a whispered narrative outlining the grand dreams in his head. Plastic cups are not just plastic cups to Jonah; they're canyons and whirlpools, dark tunnels or deep wells. He plunges a toy train into the water, drowns it beneath bubbles and rescues it with a fork crane. He sloshes the dishrag over a plate, creating a tidal wave. A miniature T. rex grabs a stegosaurus by the throat and tosses it into the suds. The point of dish washing, for Jonah, is not cleanliness; rather, it's the thrill of the ride, and he's apt to leave soapy, food-encrusted dishes lying haphazardly in the sink and on the counter while he's bent on his next mission. He gallops to the living room in a damp T-shirt, forgetting to dry his hands. I speak to him and he flashes me a quick, sweet smile, master of a private, intricate universe.

By contrast, Lily, Jonah's twin, is all clarity and efficiency. Lily wants to be an adult. Specifically, she wants to be me, with all my competence and experience. She wants to drive my car and use my scissors and my ATM card. She wants to wear my lipstick. When she washes dishes she fills a basin with soapy water, as I do, and scrubs each plate diligently, as I do. Then she places the unrinsed, soap-dripping dishes in the rack -- as I do not. I'll admit I'm glad. For all that I cherish her admiration, I don't want her to imitate my method. I don't want her to inherit my hand pains and stacking compulsions. I want her to be healthier than I am, bolder, unhampered by tradition. I want her to take flight -- as long as she comes back to visit.

How can dish washing make me think of all this? Fears overcome, battles fought and won, ambitions haphazardly fulfilled. The great dramas of life are being enacted here in my house, under my nose. They manifest themselves in my children's every gesture.

Here's the last thing to know about me: I am a collector of tiny details, a recorder, a worshiper of the small and the ordinary. Images of my children at play run through my mind like water. The sight of them warms me; it comforts me.

After they go to bed, I stand in the wrecked kitchen wiping up pools of water with a dirty cloth, a book at hand and the television primed, and I feel profound relief. This is my life.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company