Despite my title, I have no intention of weighing in on Saskatchewan political issues. Instead, in the aftermath of holiday feasting and gathering of guests, I am preoccupied with recollections of previous gatherings and feasts. So varied they are, so often memorable for events that no one planned, or for plans that did not unfold as expected. Either case has yielded family stories now told and retold with some relish and only a little exaggeration.
Concerning one occasion when two sisters-in-law were eager to show off their still untried skills learned in Chinese cooking classes, I should probably not say too much. I just wish someone had thought to take a picture of the decidedly non-commercial small kitchen. Even after many family gatherings of increasing size as weddings and births brought in new members, I cannot recall a more daunting or more precariously stacked accumulation of dirty dishes, pots, and pans. Fortunately, the whining of small children who had waited too long for a supper that they then refused to eat were drowned out by peals of adult laughter during the marathon dish-washing that then followed (nary a dishwasher in sight back then).
Almost as memorable was a summer backyard barbecue at our house. Some of the aforementioned small children were now gangly pre-teens or even teenagers, with voracious appetites and a talent for disappearing when the food was gone. My plan for handling mealtime chores was hatched as much out of my dislike for a crowded kitchen as it was a bid for equality of labour. Beside the plates on the long food table, I put a job jar — no exemptions allowed except for the youngest children. I appointed my mother-in-law to help me with left-over food; all other tasks, from minding the little ones in the sandbox to schlepping out basins of hot soapy water and taking clean dishes back inside, were determined by the luck of the draw. The jobs weren’t all real “work”; one slip of paper allowed the bearer to have a nap under a shady tree, another gave permission to explore my library in undisturbed peace. And Lady Luck was kind: that Grandpa got the nap assignment seemed only right and fair. While a few attempted to swap jobs, it was all in good fun.
What I remember now is that a shy nephew paired with an aunt for washing and rinsing dishes got into an animated discussion about the coming school year, and that the usual teasing typical of my husband’s family was this time spread out more equally among all generations. Important connections were made — all without filling immense bags of garbage.
The experience certainly strengthened our resolve to keep paper plates and plastic cutlery out of our household, even during short-notice gatherings like funerals, when time seems too precious to spend doing dishes, with or without a dishwasher. Conversations just happen over routine chores that don’t get going as easily when people are seated in a tidy livingroom, and the temptation to withdraw into a book or get attached to a screen is much lessened.
A former colleague, who gave generously of her time to students, supervising the student-run college newspaper and planning cultural events such as literary evenings or music talent nights, always insisted that the best way to help students form long-lasting bonds of friendship was to make sure that they had work to do together, even if it was just folding napkins or cleaning up after a social event.
There is something unbuttoned about tackling a chaotic kitchen, piled with the detritus of a fine dinner. Sure it’s work, but in the rhythm of making things clean again, people talk, and since they’re looking at the dish cloth in hand or scanning the cupboard for free space, they’re not thinking about whether to make eye contact or not, or what topic to introduce next. Their hands are busy, their bodies are moving naturally. Of course, I’m assuming a certain basic civility here. In a family where constant criticism and pickiness is the norm, this method of making connections does not work well. Doing dishes does not resolve dysfunctionality.
However, as anyone who has ever been part of the colossal cleanup following a natural disaster can testify, people who work together to do the “right thing” build community. And as poet William Stafford, in “A Ritual to Read to One Another,” pointed out, “If you don’t know the kind of person I am / and I don’t know the kind of person you are / a pattern that others made may prevail in the world / and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.” Getting to know that other person — guest, family member, stranger — happens more easily when hands are busy with ordinary work. That, incidentally, is often when troublesome topics can be discussed.
Which brings me back to Skip the Dishes — the company that makes it easy for people to order in food (presumably with disposable plates and cutlery, hopefully biodegradable) and not deal with dishes, not while preparing the food, not after eating it. Quite apart from environmental implications here, I’m bothered by the assumption embodied in the company name: dishes are clearly something to be avoided. At times, I agree, that may be a good idea, even recommended. All I’m saying is that the more we skip the dishes — and the loving labour of making the food, sharing it, serving it on real plates and bowls (which can be special in themselves, laden with memories of important relationships) — the more we sidestep spaces in which we can get to know each other enough to refuse to let others make different “pattern(s) . . . prevail in the world.”
Froese taught English literature at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon for many years until her retirement. She currently works part time as academic editor while relishing the freedom to read and write for pleasure.