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A new lesson on doing the dishes

Cleaning up after dinner in my 90 square foot apartment is easy. There’s only one plate, one fork, one knife and a spoon. But when it comes to cleaning up after, say, Thanksgiving, I’ve got that down to a science too. Holidays at home have me orchestrating my cousins into a symbiotic flow of clearing the table, wrapping leftovers, washing dishes, drying dishes, and putting them away. And while it might be the most efficient process, I recently learned that doesn’t necessarily make it the best.

Last week I went down to Florida to visit my grandparents. On my last night they hosted a dinner party for six, which my grandmother spent the afternoon preparing for. Between courses I cleared the table, leaving the dirty dishes and pots in an organized fashion next to the sink, ready to be washed – by me – after the meal.

So when dessert was gone and the teacups were empty, I started in on the clean up. Right away my grandfather started giving me directions. Sure, at 90, he knows a thing or two more than I do, but did he really think I didn’t know how to clean dishes? And as the words, “Papa, I know what I’m doing” were about to lift off my tongue, I grabbed them back. In that one instant, I realized, of course he knows I know – this man thinks I can do anything – he was only telling me so that he could still feel in control of his life, which, at 90, feels like it’s slowly seeping out of him. So would it hurt me to just do what he said?

Of course not.

As we stood shoulder to shoulder, him rinsing the dishes then handing them to me to place in the dishwasher (“Facing the same way,” he added, as though fitting objects into small spaces wasn’t my thing), I smiled. Turns out, there was something I didn’t know about cleaning up a kitchen. While the task may be disguised in dirty plates and greasy pans, the task itself was insignificant. It was sharing the moment with my grandfather – one of which there may not be too many more of – that matters more than a spotless kitchen done in record time.

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