Doing Dishes

"Sunday Dishes," Carol Crump Bryner, colored pencil, 2014

“Sunday Dishes,” Carol Crump Bryner, colored pencil, 2014

When a friend mentioned that she was overly particular about loading her dishwasher, I admitted that I, too, moved the plates and bowls around to their “proper” places after they’d been loaded “wrong” by well-meaning helpers.

Kitchen routines, especially dish related ones, are like that. Once you get into a pattern it’s hard to change. On the farm, the dishwashing rhythm, established who knows when, was unchanging. Someone – usually my grandmother – filled a pan in the white sink with hot soapy water. Soap was never wasted, so only one pan of washing water was used for the whole gamut of dirt.

Grandma Hall washed the glasses first, the silverware second, the cups, china, and tea things next. The greasy pots and pans came last, taking their bath in tepid grimy water. She put the soapy dishes onto the draining board where they waited to be “scalded” with boiling water from the silver-colored kettle simmering on the stovetop. When I was the dryer I complained about soapy traces left on the dishes and was told it was my job to wipe everything clean with the towel – a little soap never hurt anyone. Besides, Grandma Hall said, after the scalding, the dishes were perfectly sterile.

I remember a Sunday morning when I was in college. I decided at the last minute to drive home and surprise my family by joining them for Sunday dinner at the farm. I felt the need to be in the loving circle of parents and brother and grandparents for a little while. The noon meal was the big meal of the day on the farm, and the Sunday dinner was always special.

I don’t remember what we ate, but I do remember standing at the kitchen sink with my grandmother and mother while I dried the dishes. I wore a favorite 1960’s college girl outfit – black sweater, black and white pleated wool skirt, black stockings, black shoes, and probably a gold circle pin. It was comforting to be in the midst of the steamy haze and the patter of small talk and feel that I totally belonged. I was independent, but not quite. I drove back to school that afternoon wishing I could stay at the farm with my family and forget about getting on in the world.

These old-fashioned routines haunt me long after I’ve established my own more modern ones. And I’m trying to remember the kettle. I can only approximate the way it looked, but to this day I feel its heft and remember the hot thrill of pouring boiling water over precious and fragile glassware and china.

"Kitchen Kettle," Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 2012

“Kitchen Kettle,” Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 2012

On Wednesday:  Water on the Farm – The Spring

8 thoughts on “Doing Dishes

  1. Netzy

    Hi Carol, I can see you working with your grandmother in the kitchen drying your dishes in your “black” college outfit. I don’t have any memories of working with the dishes in the kitchen. That pretty plate looks very delicate. I love the way thin glass feels when drinking from it. Your decorated plate looks dainty and probably when held up to the light you can see through it. How appropriate for this post by you today- we have a non- functioning disposal and a leaking kitchen sink -need your grandmother’s white pan and a dish rack!!!!

  2. Mary

    When I was first married we had a dishwasher. Within a year or two it broke and I never replaced it. Even when, for many years, my extended family came to Chapel Hill at Thanksgiving and Christmas I didn’t miss it. Doing dishes and drying them for a company of 15 to 18 was a family event–those who cooked didn’t wash, Standing in the kitchen washing and drying the dishes was a time when cousins and aunts and uncles, male and female talked.
    Your description of feeling claimed by your family, of belonging, is compelling. I’m not sure I have such a clear memory. Belonging has been a sporadic thing for me.

    1. Carol Post author

      It is a nice routine, and always a companionable one. And especially if the plates and glasses are special ones and only used on festive occasions. It’s nice to be able to touch them and look at them and feel the satisfaction of wiping them clean for the next party.

  3. Michael Foster

    I like the description of a basic domestic routine that comes to mean so much when you think of family, comfort and security. It is definitely interesting to think about who established the “right” way to do things, how long ago that was and how it has changed or not changed over the generations. We have been on the road for a week and camping at Mesa Verde for the past four days, so I have fallen out of touch with the blog. I am hoping to catch up when I get home. Looking at the sites where people lived 700 to 1,500 years ago shows me how much all people have in common. I can easily visualize parents teaching their children the “correct” way to do all sorts of things, including cooking and caring for the utensils used in meal preparation. It is fascinating that many of the same routines are in use today on the modern pueblo, modified only slightly from the centuries past. I’m sure the first women of the Hall family would find some household routines very familiar, but wonder where we “went wrong” on others. Thanks for the reminder that the little things matter.

    1. Carol Post author

      I love this thought of what we have in common with ancient people and their ways of doing things. Hope you are having a wonderful trip. That area so different from the green hills and fields of New England and so beautiful. I always think of the Willa Cather book “The Professor’s House” when I hear about the old dwellings in that part of the country.

  4. Patti Burkett

    I think I have these dishes! They are marked “Aunt Hattie’s china”. It’s not a complete set and they are worn looking but I think I’m going to pull them out and have some friends over for lunch on them!!

    1. Carol Post author

      I have some of these dishes too, but like you, not a complete set. Grandma Hall must have divided them up between the girls. I have two little cups and the creamer and sugar bowl and a few plates. They’re pretty dishes. Glad to know where they came from. I knew they were from the farm, but it’s nice to know that they belonged to Aunt Hattie.


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