“We need a dishwasher,” I sighed as I reluctantly stacked the plates on the table and carried them to the counter, plopping them down with a bit more force than necessary. I knew there was no hope of getting a dishwasher; Mom had her own way of doing things, but I pleaded my case just the same. Hearing the clatter of dishes, she glanced over with a frown, then placed a bowl of leftover potatoes into the fridge. With both hands I gathered the pile of silverware the four of us had used for supper and dropped them recklessly next to the plates.
Having raised five kids before me, Mother knew when something was bothering us. “How was school today?” she finally asked, probably hoping I would start talking before I grabbed the really breakable stuff.
“Horrible,” I replied. “We did not get to play ball, not even during noon hour.” Mom hurried to snatch up her fragile glasses.
“Somebody shot a spit wad when the teacher was writing on the chalkboard. It whizzed right next to her ear. There it stuck. Smack on the old blackboard! By the time she turned around, we were all staring down at our desks. She asked who shot the spit wad. Nobody would confess, so we all had to stay in every recess. How come we all had to be punished because of one dumb kid? He should have known not to shoot it when she was standing right there. It’s just not fair.”
I had calmed down a bit as I reached into the drawer for a clean dish towel. An adorable kitten embroidered on the front of the towel sat next to a scrub board. “Monday Wash” was neatly stitched under the cat. The sharply pressed folds stood out on the pristine white cloth as I shook it open. “How about if we just let the dishes dry in the drainer? Think of all the work it would save.”
That got a rise out of Mother as she hauled the Dutch oven from the stove. She had her own way of doing things. “I don’t want my glasses looking like the dog licked them.” Since I loved the dog, I didn’t think that would be so terrible.
Mom squeezed a generous squirt of Dove for Dishes into the dishpan and turned on the hot water faucet. The subtle scent of lily of the valley wafted into the air as Mom carefully placed the wheat-printed glasses into the water. Having released my anger into words, frustration dissipated like the steamy vapor. I gently pushed the towel into the first glass. “What was it like when you went to school, Mom?”
Her hands swished through the sparkling suds for a few seconds. “There were times when I thought things were unfair, too. I was left-handed. Back then the teacher thought everyone should write with their right hand. She got out her ruler, and if I reached for the slate pencil with my right hand, it got smacked.”
Somehow missing recess seemed pretty trivial after that. Though I did not realize it then, those talks as Mom washed and I dried proved far more valuable than labor-saving devices. From the nooks and crannies of my mother’s mind poured precious memories.
She grew up during the Depression. She and her sisters carried a lunch pail to school. Sometimes lunch consisted of a slice of bread spread with lard or some other kind of fat.
The girls in the family had to quit school after graduating eighth grade. They were needed to work at home. Mom and her sisters sometimes milked up to thirty Holsteins by hand. When she was sixteen, Mom walked to a neighbor’s to help with housekeeping and childcare. They paid her seventy-five cents a week.
She and her sister Ida were confirmed together. Before confirmation they had to recite for the preacher. They were good at memorizing, since country school required much of that. Our mother could rip off “The Gettysburg Address,” “Paul Revere’s Ride” and the entire roster of U.S. presidents without a miss. Reciting the Small Catechism was a piece of cake.
As I dried and stacked slightly-chipped dime store plates, evenings flitted away in our South Dakota kitchen, and family history passed on to one more generation. My grandpa died before I was born, but I grew to know him from Mom’s stories. Two of her brothers went to war. One fought at Normandy. Neither talked about the battles.
When Mom and Dad first got married, their only furniture was peach crates, stacked on end. From sunup to sundown she worked next to him in the fields. Her life had not been easy, but she neither whined nor complained. Like sloshing soapy water over a soup bowl, she did what needed to be done.
Mom was not always the one standing in front of our kitchen sink. When my sisters got old enough, it was their job to do the supper dishes. Usually the oldest washed, and the younger girls dried. Certain that there was more to life than doing dishes, they hurried through the task.
As the youngest I was the lucky one. With a dishtowel in hand and the scent of Dove dish soap lingering in the air, I learned about old times and family and life. I learned to say what was on my mind, then put it in perspective. I learned to listen.
Looking back, I am glad Mom never heeded my pleas for a dishwasher. To this day I am thankful that our mother had her own way of doing things.
DeAnn Kruempel grew up on a farm near De Smet, SD, the sixth child of Harrison and Mabel Wolkow. She attended school at Erwin and De Smet. Married Vicar Robert Kruempel and lived in Benedict, ND, Toeterville, Akron, and Missouri Valley, IA. The author now resides on an acreage near Logan, IA and is employed as Children's Librarian at Missouri Valley Public Library. DeAnn has written a series of five books, "Promises to Keep," which are available at Amazon.com.