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.