This I Believe

Janice - Brookline, Massachusetts
Entered on January 9, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: family

WASHING THE DISHES

I believe in the sweetness of memories. I remember the family coming together to my Great Aunt Esther’s apartment for the Yom Kippur break-fast. The hallway of her building was filled with a symphony of aromas from holiday meals prepared with love. My Grandma Sarah, her sister, would make gefilte fish in the old grinder that screwed like a vice to the kitchen table. Her horseradish made us tear up when she opened the jar. We called Grandma Sarah and Aunt Esther the pixilated sisters. Their eyes twinkled and they were happiest when they were together feeding their children for a holiday dinner. My daughters are named for them.

Dinner was organized chaos. There was lively discussion throughout. At the meal’s end, the men would retire into the living room to sit in the overstuffed chairs and talk as heatedly about last night’s baseball game as they would about the state of the world.

And the women…they retired into the kitchen to do the dishes. For years I silently thought of the injustice that the men would relax while the women had hours of messy work ahead of them. The family ethos was that, without even an offer, the boys abandoned us to our chores in favor of “making themselves comfortable.” And worse yet, the girls had no expectations that anything might occur differently. As a teenager I expressed my outrage, “Doesn’t anyone see the injustice?” The pixilated sisters placated me, pat my head and gave me a squeeze, then moved on to finish clearing the table.

It took me years to realize that this was indeed not a miscarriage of justice, but in fact an archetypal ceremony of calculated intent. The men were not needed, nor were they welcome. The best part of the new year celebration was about to begin and it belonged only to the women. This exclusive club had for its leaders the grandmas (the bubbies), Sarah and Esther, the pixilated sisters, who set the tone for a joyous process. They were the directors…the washers. We, the next generations, were the stackers and the dryers.

Here in the kitchen over the sink we talked about the year. Here we shed tears, recalling sad events. We joked and gossiped, giggling over the steaming soapsuds. And always we sang. Sometimes there were lovely Yiddish melodies and sometimes torch songs from the 40s. As everyone sang on, we would dance waltzes in pairs, dishtowels in hands awaiting the next batch of dishes to appear in the drainer. By the time the dishes were put away on the shelves family tensions from the previous year had been washed away with the dirty suds. Here in this kitchen was created the true meaning of the holidays. For now, at least the women in my family, were ready to begin another new year with (as they say) a clean slate, and a clean kitchen.