A few nights ago I enlisted my daughter Ellie’s help with the dishes. As usual, the dishwasher was jammed full and there was still a sink-full left. I asked her to be my dryer and she grabbed a rag, rolling her eyes the way any eight-year old would when asked to help. I don’t take it personally. I think she does it more because she thinks she’s supposed to be annoyed, and missing playtime to help with chores is decidedly uncool.
It’s quiet when we start, and my fingers are red before I realize the water is too hot. Ellie stands still, rag in hand, waiting for me to pass.
“Ellie, did you know that when I was a little girl…” I start.
“You and mamanaun (my grandma) used to do dishes together.” She forced a monotone “been there, done that” voice, saying, “ and she would wash them and you would dry them.”
I looked at her.
“You’ve told me that like a million times, mommy.”
I scrunch my eyes up and look back at the sink so she won’t see that it hurt my feelings. I know she didn’t mean it that way, but I’m embarrassed that I don’t remember. I guess I’m that mom, I think. The one who is out of touch and still tells the same boring things over and over again like she never has.
I adjust the water and blink my eyes a few times before I look back at her.
“I’m sorry, El. I didn’t realize that. I guess I just always think of it whenever I wash dishes.” I smile at her, trying to convince her that I have more to offer than stale memories.
“It’s okay. I like it.”
It’s quiet again for a few minutes and I feel like she is growing up with every dry dish.
She used to think I was the funniest, prettiest, smartest mom in the world. She would glow when she introduced me to her friends, sure that they all wished I could tuck them in at night. And now, standing taller than I remember her standing that morning, she was forming her own opinions about me. Opinions that weren’t remedied by crossing my eyes or tickling her.
It felt like a different responsibility all of a sudden.
I flipped on the garbage disposal and watched the water drain down, revealing a layer of silverware along the bottom of the sink.
“Oh, we missed some, hon. Look, it’s like buried treasure underneath all that soap!” She leaned over the sink and smiled.
“I guess we aren’t going to be done for a LONG time!” she exclaimed. She didn’t seem as disappointed about it as I thought she would be.
After saying “buried treasure,” I started thinking about the Titanic and how interesting it was that all that stuff was still down in the ocean somewhere. I told her about it and she was in awe that it had really happened.
“So, it’s down there now?” She set her rag down.
“Yeah, it’s there. I mean, whatever’s left now. Who knows? Could be some really cool stuff that nobody’s found yet.” Her eyes were huge.
“Can we go there?”
“No, I don’t think so. It’s pretty far underwater. But we can get some books at the library if you want to see pictures of it. And we can look it up on the computer.” I offered.
There were only a few spoons left and I realized we had been talking for almost a half hour while we cleaned. My hands were all wrinkly-wet and her towel was soaked through from all the dishes. I took the last few utensils and walked to the drawer to put them away.
When I got back to the sink, she was smiling mischievously.
There were suddenly three more “dirty” bowls and a measuring cup in the sink. She cleared her throat, the way any eight-year old would in such a situation.
“Go ahead, mommy. You get ‘em clean and pass ‘em to me.” She had that same look on her face, the one that told me I had found what I was searching for. I breathed in, letting the smell of lemon soap and childhood freeze this moment in my memory.
One day, many years from now, I hope there is another red-headed girl standing tall on a stool, telling her mommy she has heard this story before.
And like me, she will go to bed thinking of the treasure that was worth digging for. Under the soap, the sea, the flesh of a child trying to navigate new waters. The red hands of a mother who longed for intimacy, no matter the time spent searching.
And maybe, like me, they will rejoice in spending the rest of their lives filling the sink, only to empty it out again.
For a Drop of Scripture encouragement, read Psalm 91.