Musings of a Dish-washing Woman

Yes, the 25th of December was indeed Christmas. If there’d been any confusion about it, the stockings, gingerbread house, fly-away bits of wrapping, and abundant food would have clued you in. But I knew it was Christmas, really Christmas, when I stood over the sink of dirty dishes and pottered about my kitchen for literally hours cleaning it all up without one shred of resentment or boredom. In fact, all I was feeling was a peculiarly abiding sense of peace. I knew it was fleeting, but I recognized it from last year and I knew it would come again next. The unheralded ritual of cleaning up after the festivities is one that I hold dear.


Without dragging sexual politics into it (thank God I don’t need to; my husband and I divide any and all chores the best we can), I simply felt the peace of being connected to generations of women who have stood elbow-deep in warm, soapy water, thinking the same thoughts. Listening to the children’s voices and the low, anti-climactic thrum of the post-gift-giving wind-down. Feeling my own tightly-wound clock let itself relax into a timeless contentment. Pondering the ups and downs of the past year and allowing the quiet thrill of having made it and-yet-again, one more year, without a user’s manual about How To Age or How To Parent or How To Be a Good Partner to sink in. Realizing, hands shriveling happily in warm water, that there are things we can just manage to manage if only we keep our hearts and heads open, our shoulders to the grindstone of life. If only we have some sort of faith that things will work out.


Table cleared. Dishwasher loaded. Still, piles to clean by hand. The inherited porcelain too delicate for machine washing. The bone-handled knives. The champagne flutes and wine-glasses that don’t nestle comfortably despite the brilliant German engineering. The sheer numbers of pickle dishes and dessert plates and serving platters that don’t fit once the lion’s share of plain-old-plates has been loaded. The dishes that have to be rinsed and hand-dried before others will even fit into the sink. The left-over food that has to find a place, a nook, repackaged economically into the refrigerator. The cheeses that need to be individually wrapped. The crumbs that need clearing. The scraps that go to the dog, to the garbage or to the compost pile. Another pot of coffee please. I’ll have a bit more before the job is done.


It goes slowly this job that I usually abhor. But I don’t mind. Not on Christmas Day. Each dish cleaned, rinsed off, toweled dry, is one more precious chance to reflect on the good fortune one has. To be in a warm home. To be surrounded by a life one has chosen. To rub against other lives and destinies that are intimately connected. To be alone with one’s thoughts even if they are wandering far away in time and space, covering the distances back and forth between now and what it took to get here. Step by step. Year by year. The creeping, invisible process we all go through from our own past to our own present. And these holidays are our breadcrumbs. Our way back. And our way forward.


Christmases collapse into each other. A platter, held at a 45 degree angle because otherwise it won’t fit into the deep farmer’s sink, takes you back to the year it held poached salmon, or the Christmas it served rack of lamb, or the experiment 365 days ago with stuffed Capon. Meals telescope into meals, years into years, teenage children into wee ones peering into their first stockings and believing fervently in things you helped them to believe. They no longer believe, but somehow, fingertips pruning in the bottom of a sudsy stockpot, you do. Once again, you do.


Finally, the dishes are cleaned. They are dried. They are put away. The heirlooms carefully stacked, breathing happily in their designated cupboard. The perishables back in the cool of the refrigerator or the box on the windowsill. After all, it is a refrigerator outside. Cold. Cold. The coffee stains have been wiped away from the hob. The counters have been wiped down. The bread crumbs have been given to the birds and the remaining loaves laid with respect in their basket.


The job is complete. The kitchen is clean. The dining table is ready for the next spread of light leftovers (our appetites are exhausted). The year is almost over. I am happy to be the woman I am. I rub cream on my hands and head up the stairs where a good book awaits.


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16 Responses to Musings of a Dish-washing Woman

  1. How beautifully captured, this invisible and tender moment so many understand. Merry Christmas from Canada.

    • Thank you, thank you. I’m so glad it has struck a chord. I never know how it’s going to go, but I guess that’s the adventure of blogging. In the end, you just have to write you feel and believe to be true.

  2. Cook-Tench says:

    What a perfect and lovely summation of Christmas. It arrived just as I finished the last of the wine glasses. Thank you for sharing your gifts with us Charlotte. This is a beautiful post. Much love and good cheer to you and yours! Diane

    • Thanks Diane. I always reread everything and think, “ugh, why the hell didn’t you describe it better than that?? and with less typos??? and with more poetry? and unusual language? and wit???” The constant banter of an insecure “creative” person. So when someone like you says, “Well done,” I am momentarily soothed. It would be nice to outgrow this B.S.! And, right there, a New Year’s resolution was born. Have a GREAT holiday, dear Diane.

  3. sbaird says:

    Thank you so much for writing this beautiful encapsulation of the moments when the Christmas cleaning up of the kitchen commences. For the first time ever, it seemed, I sat at the table watching my youngest daughter doing all of the cleaning up of the dishes last evening. I felt as if the mantle was being passed and it was done with kindness, no hesitation, no grumblings. Of her own accord.

    • That is happening for me too, with my oldest Miss C., but not where dirty dishes are concerned! And not on Christmas. I sort of shoo people out of the kitchen. So far, this is a time I need…but I bet the time will come when I let someone else do it. I actually hate washing dishes. it just on Christmas that it makes me feel good…

  4. cecilia says:

    I HATE Dishes, but I hate american paper plates even more and have NEVER had one in the house. So dishes i have. For my 50th birthday JOhn gave me a dishwasher. . My grandmother hated washing dishes too . she washed dishes so fast that the dish DRYER ended up wiping them clean, and if you sent a dish back for more washing there would be MURDER in her eyes, she was short and pretty, my grandmother but she was a born Killer. My mother and father never did dishes, Mum always said that this is why she gave birh to children, so that they could do the dishes and we did. Standing on chairs at the beginning.. My Mother never touched a dirty dish. We worked in shifts the: before dinner dish doers and the: after dinner dish doers .Though she did clean up as she cooked, which was a good thing, though to tell you the truth she did not do terribly much cooking either once we were tall enough to reach the stove and then she got sick.. But we were already trained. But your dishwashing sounded like such a peaceful time. I like that! Did you have music on? a talking book? I am glad you had a good day though.. love love c

    • A grandmother with murder in her eye!!! Yowza. I had one of those too. She used to call us “brats” and shoo us out of the house if it weren’t pouring down rain. She would have made us clean her house and cook as well, except that she was a bit too mean spirited to let anyone do it WRONG. I knew you hated washing dishes…I was thinking of you a bit as I wrote. I ordinarily do NOT like it either, but on Christmas it’s just different. I can’t explain it beyond what I wrote. I just give into it, and then feel happy about it.

      • cecilia says:

        I felt it when I was handwashing my woolens today, before i could handwash them I had to make some of the Nuns laundry soap, and as I shaved the soap into a pot to heat up and make the soap to wash my jersey, then the gentle rhythm of the handwashing, that is when I thought Oh yeah.. this is what Char is talking about.. this..the oldest movements a woman owns, an ancient knowledge passed all the way from the women at the rivers edge to us.. you and me.. love love… c

      • I love it, LOVE it, that you call me Char. Only my oldest friends do that…it’s an Anglosaxon thing, I think. No one
        in Italy would dream of calling me Char. They can’t pronounce the CH and they would find it weird ending in a consonant.
        So glad you did it. Makes me feel all homey and loved. And, yes, known. Thank you.

  5. Joan says:

    Striaght to my Heart.
    No one is ever alowed to help me with the clean up. It is MY time. Yes. my time of contentment and peace.
    Merry Christmas too you and yours.

  6. Thank you Joan! A kindred spirit…Have a lovely holiday wherever you are!

  7. Teresa Elliott says:

    I thought it was just me, that selfish, indulgent feeling I get when declining any post-Christmas clean-up assistance. Just me and the leftovers and the memories and the plans. In my realm where everything works the way it should.

  8. dayphoto says:

    I like to be the only person in the kitchen…even the cleaning up is calming…organizing, space alone…all so very peaceful!

    Lovely post, My Friend,

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