My mom had a three-foot measuring stick and if you exceeded that length, you qualified for frequent dishwashing. In other words, at that height, if you were able to reach the bottom of the sink, I was then drafted into dishwashing and might I say number four in the family of eight to help clean the kitchen after meals. Perhaps I started sooner than most as I was tall for my age. It’s probably not hard to imagine an adult doing dishes for ten people after a big meal, but at six or seven years of age?
A few years later, a fifth sibling qualified for doing dishes. At that point with so many helpers in the kitchen, I believe my dad and older sister devised a weekly point system, one point for clearing, washing, and drying. The goal of this new point system was to simplify things with kitchen chores which weren't always the case. Anyway, as in any new system, adjustments had to be made.
The clearing of dishes was fairly straightforward but also included sweeping the floor. That meant moving many chairs around to ensure all crumbs and excess food were correctly captured with a broom and dustpan. I enjoyed getting my hands wet while washing dishes but your flow could be disrupted by a "lollygagging" clearer who some may observe had ADHD and weren't always on task. Some of my siblings liked drying as they could wield their power of quality control and sent anything back to the washer that didn't meet their standards. I rarely took offense to wash a dish or eating utensil a second time as long I wasn’t splashed in the process. Anyway, there was never a situation when the kitchen was not completely cleaned by bedtime.
During school, dinner was the only meal to address and three meals for Saturday and Sunday. During summer vacation, there were three meals each day times seven days which meant a total point value was sixty-three. This meant during the warm summer, breakfast, and lunch often just involved bowls, silverware, glasses, and paper plates (to be discarded).
These types of meals provided an astute sibling to grab those easier points of the week. Summer dinners were the exact opposite as my mother and older siblings helped whip up a sit down dinner that included meat, potatoes, and vegetables along with whole milk. For evening meals, most of us were not brave enough to tackle such a chore but I must add that the individual with the least amount of points at that moment had to address the mess. It was a major mess to clean up and was also a major mess to one's playtime.
My youngest brother was adept at lobbying mom on the types of meals she was planning for Saturday and Sunday. If he quietly learned that we’d have a roast on Saturday or Sunday night, he’d call breakfast and/or lunch – a quick way to earn plenty of points with a limited amount of effort. Because you couldn’t signup for a meal until the day prior, he’d often call “easier weekend meals” the first thing on Friday morning. It took me a while to see his approach but for whatever reason, could rarely beat him at his own game.
The week ended on Saturday so there were many situations where I was short three or more points on the last day of the week. If lucky, I'd grab three for breakfast but that wasn't always the case. Often, I'd get stuck doing lunch and/or dinner and if not a grab meal (bread, cold cuts, chips and milk), I was in a world of hurt. I vividly remember looking at the vacant kitchen after the other nine had gone onto more interesting things. For sit down dinners, there were typically four pots and pans to clean, several spatulas, cutting knives, plates, glasses, silverware for ten, if not more. Also, there may have been additional dishes in the sink from snacks consumed in the afternoon. My daydreaming helped me pass the time away, but in today's world, I'd strap on my noise-canceling headphones and listen to podcasts to help me accomplish this mundane task.
It’s not a surprise that controversy sometimes ensued about who called what meal. Did they sign the call sheet? Was it legible? Was it called within the correct time frame? Did they include which tasks they were interested in? There were times my dad was in the living room reading the paper as some of us bickered and debated on the correct legal fight. After this occurred for about 5-10 minutes, he’d charge into the kitchen and try to sort things out. If it was quite involved, his executive decision was that those involved in the controversy had to partner together and clean up the dinner mess. There were a few times when I may have followed the letter of the law but not the spirit which would create additional drama in the kitchen. My approach was if I were to drown in a sea of dirty dishes, I wanted to bring others down with me.
One more thing about doing dishes many years ago, we had to rinse and wash out the empty cans of corn, beans, and peas that were to be recycled. Imagine having an environmentally conscious dad who felt the need to recycle 50 years ago. Recycling was not the zeitgeist at the time so the majority of families never would have gone through the bother but one could also say no families would have gone through the bother of formalizing a dishwashing point system.
Call me a fool but today, over 50 years later, I still enjoy doing dishes. I've perfected the system so I feel it's the most efficient way of getting the dishes cleaned. We didn't have a window over our sink growing up but I now glance out the window while I scrub and clean the dishes. Sometimes, my mom would review the temperature of the dishwater and say it had to be hotter to kill all the germs. So today, when I manually wash dishes, I give homage to my mom as I attempt to wash them in very hot water. I must say that I'm not completely against a dishwasher if you have a dinner party or a special event and need to quickly clean up the kitchen but if it's only a party of two eating at home, the manual method works well for me.
My kids can’t believe I didn’t have a dishwasher growing up with so many mouths to feed. First of all, our kitchen was about ninety square feet so no place for a dishwasher. With so many kids around, you had to keep them busy to avoid fighting and bickering. Over the years, my dad was sometimes asked why he didn’t have a dishwasher and he would always say, “What do you mean? I have eight of them.” I can’t imagine while doing dishes as a 2nd grader that I would still be going through the same process today. Is it because years ago, I had plenty of siblings who were not shy at providing quality control? Or was it the point system that instilled hard work in me and today I still clearly remember having to clean up our eating area that sometimes looked like it was destroyed by a tornado. I don't have an answer but all I know is my family today is grateful that I handle this task efficiently and effortlessly, even 50 years after the inception of our points system.
Written by Kevin Schwarm