My dad is the kind of dad that has a saying for most things. Corny and comical, he was not above saying that he’d had a good day at the “orifice” when referencing his office, calling to mind a place where one could easily get lost and stuck, like a dropped hair pin down the drain. His Saturday errands were never much better, often ending up at the “homeless depot,” that bright orange big box home center, trying to track down a tool of some kind. Whether he was pulling out a pun, or creating some sort of predictable lingo, my dad could often illicit a grimace from us kids.
At home, around the dinner table, things were no different. Most nights of my growing up, after the plates had been cleared and we pushed back our chairs from the table, my dad would call his Kitchen Patrol to order. With his clear directive: “back to zero” we had just one task: clean up. By this he meant that the kitchen, after a full day of three square meals and all the requisite mess that goes into making them, needed to glisten like it was brand new. If all the day’s mess-making was added up cereal bowl plus butter dish in the equation, than this cleaning – the wiping and scrubbing and putting away – was the negative algebra necessary to balance it all out. That, along with “completing the magic cycle,” which in his vernacular meant seeing to it that our dirty dishes ended up in the dishwasher instead of on the counter above it.
There was always camaraderie in the process. When we were younger, my dad stuck around to make sure we got stuff done properly, but as we got older my sister and I were left on our own. Of course we grumbled and made excuses – oh the homework! so much! really! – but we took up our dishtowels and stood in position. If it was my arms and hands that turned red and raw from the hot water, it was hers that were at the ready with a towel, drying and reaching to the high cabinets to put dishes away. And really, how else is one supposed to learn the art of snapping towels? No child should be without this skill.
This language of completion, of cycles and clean slates, like anything with such childhood repetition, has stuck with me. Standing in the kitchen now of my adulthood, nary a night goes by that these refrains don’t chug like a train along those railroads tracks deep in my brain, the ones that were laid a long, long time ago. While my dad was teaching us about fair work, about responsibility, about the nitty-gritty of scrubbing pots and belonging to community, he was also teaching us about fresh starts. Each day brings it’s own grime, and the dirt of living with each other stains us. It takes diligent work, knowing how and when to say sorry, how to fix our mistakes, how to reach through to each other. But each morning, we are “back to zero,” ready to face another day. Nourishing ourselves and one another is not without mess. In our house now, this means fresh starts whenever we ask for them.
My kids are still young yet for manning their own station as we strive to get “back to zero” every night in the kitchen, but they are learning their own small part in the process. Each night when they set, and then later clear, the table, they see how they contribute to our family community. And right now, the job for Mark and I is to take up our station and do the work of scrubbing those dishes, completing the cycles, magic and otherwise, and putting glasses away, ready to start the next day new again.
This is part of a series that I post occasionally about the family sayings and folklore that are meaningful to me, especially in my family history, as a way to explore my own Story. Similar posts can be found here: ‘near nough. and here: it’s not that windy. Tell me some of yours!