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MCG, a Chicana feminist, for sure, teaches community college English

Monday, September 3, 2012


MCG's childhood home
    Mom said that we didn't need a dishwasher. I was the dishwasher. She sat around the house practically naked when it was hot, and I stood over the sink and washed dishes. I started washing the dishes as soon as I was tall enough to reach the sink. When he could be found, my brother who was younger but about the same size, sometimes did the rinsing.
         “Quit going so fast – you're going  fast on purpose,” he'd whine every time.
         Washing dishes put everyone in a bad mood. There were always too many; the counter space was too small, and the dishes piled up so fast that the two sinks had to be emptied before any washing could even get done. That took nearly the same amount of time as washing them. I'd have to line the cups and glasses on the small space next to the sink and make stacks of bowls, and stacks of plates, and a wobbly stack of pots and pans on the stove behind me. The pots and pans were always crusted with food: dried egg, and lentils, and grease, and cream of mushroom soup, and there was always way too much silverware. I hated washing the silverware. It was usually slimy from sitting at the bottom of the sink and hard to get clean unless each fork, spoon, or knife were washed separately.
         Mom always had to remind me to do the dishes, “You gonna do those dishes sometime today?
         If I asked to ride my bike or visit Amelie she'd ask, “Are the dishes done?”
         The answer was usually, “no.”
         “Do the dishes then you can go,” she'd say sometimes smoking a joint, sometimes, folding laundry, sometimes just sitting in her brown chair doing nothing at all.
         Sometimes she'd find me outside not asking to go anywhere, knowing the dishes hadn't been washed in a day or so, and hoping she wouldn't notice.
         “Michelle, get in this goddamn house and do these fucking dishes,” she'd shout from the door, letting the screen door slam behind her.
         I knew to get inside quick before she started throwing dishes around the kitchen making an even bigger mess.
         If my brother was home, Mom made him help, but it was better if he wasn't. He'd just slow me down with his histrionics.
         When we did do the dishes together, I'd try to wash them slowly, but no matter how slow I went, he couldn't keep up, and the dishes would pile up to the top of the sink, leaving no room for rinsing. If I didn't stop washing glasses, the sink would fill and the glasses, would fall into one another and break, sending Mom in from the front room screaming. If I went too fast while washing the plates, a big stack would pile up in the middle of the sink, and the water from the faucet would splash down on them, spraying water all over us. We made a big enough mess with water as it was, all over the floor at our feet, down the front of shirts, and by the time we finished, my arms would be red and irritated from all the soap and water, especially in winter.
         Sometimes, when Amonie whined enough, I'd suggest that he wash and I rinse.
         “Why don't you wash them, and I'll rinse,” I'd say, handing him the slimy wash rag.
         This was always a mistake because since he knew he couldn't wash the dishes fast at all, he'd go deliberately slow; one fork, the tines, the handle; a knife, the blade, the handle; inside a bowl, the rim, the outside; a plate, the front, the back. I could wash the bowls well with just a couple swipes from my rag, wipe front, wipe back, put it in the rinsing sink; a large plate, wipe this way and that that way on the front, wipe the back, scrub any dried food, and put it in the rinsing sink. For silverware I'd lift four or five pieces at a time, scrubbing the top of each, one at a time, and set them in the rinsing sink.
         It would take a good five minutes before my brother would fill the rinsing sink with dishes before I could run the water, and I'd want to bang my head, or his, on the lip of the sink. Instead I gripped the sink with my hands trying not to scream at him to hurry the hell up which only sent my mom running in to smack me upside the head with whatever was handy on the counter, one time a wooden spoon, a spatula, even a hunk of defrosting meat for rolling my eyes at her when she came running in to tell me to shut up.
         There were some chores that I didn't mind doing. I didn't mind chopping wood to make kindling. On the porch outside the front door, I'd take a medium-sized piece of cedar, prop it up on the wood splitting log, and hack my ax through it several times, the cedar making a satisfying splintering sound with each whack, a slice of strawberry blond cedar falling to the ground. The ax got stuck sometimes on a small knot in the wood, and I'd have to bring the ax, which was now stuck onto the piece of wood, down onto the wood chopping log several times until the knot finally gave way, producing a not so smooth piece of kindling, hard to bundle and carry with the rest.
         I also didn't mind hanging wet clothes on the clothesline out in the yard, as long as it wasn't too hot, or the thistles so high they'd scratch my legs as I walked the length of the line pinning a t-shirt, a skirt, a row of socks, and a row of underwear as I went. We had a washing machine, but no dryer, so in the spring and summer we used the line outdoors, and there was one inside too above the wood stove. In the yard, I liked when a strong wind lifted my hair even when I stood still at the line, and I liked holding an extra clothespin in my mouth like I had seen my mom do. I liked when a gray squirrel on a high branch caught my eye or the woodpecker on the hill pecked away in his favorite tree, the sound echoing around me. Taking the clothes off the line in the heat was another thing entirely, they were hot, and crunchy, especially the jeans which were filled with earwigs that crawled in and out of the pockets when you turned them right side in because the jeans we dried inside out to keep the color from fading. You had to give them a good shake before bringing them in the house and earwigs with them.
         Mom must have hated washing dishes as much as I did because she almost never ever washed them. Sometimes I thought she gave birth to us just so she wouldn't have to do dishes and the other chores that she made us do. She didn't seem to mind cooking dinner, but we were on our own for breakfast and lunch. And on the first of the month she did the grocery shopping in town, going only to the stores that accepted WIC and food stamps. The big store in town was less expensive than the little store but shopping in Sonora was the least expensive at all, but Mom didn't always have car that would make it all the way to Sonora or enough money for gas.
         Bursting through the door one afternoon, after returning home from the big store, Mom called my name.
         “Michelle, I have a present for you,” she said, dropping two paper bags filled with groceries onto the kitchen table near the front door.
         “You do!” I came running from my bedroom. She had her back to kitchen sink, and I hoped she hadn't noticed all the dishes in the sink.
         “Yes, I do,” she said, rummaging through one of the bags then the other to find my gift. She didn't usually have money for gifts, only on birthdays or Christmas when she had time to save.
         She pulled a bottle of Joy dish soap from the bag.
         “Here,” she said, thrusting the bottle into my hands, her smile now gone, “Now you can get on those dishes.”
         “Thanks,” I said, and I went straight to the sink.
         “What, you don't like it?”
         “It's fine,” I said, getting right to work. I cleared the small counter space near the sink, lined up the glasses and cups, made a stack of plates, and a stack of bowls, using the clatter of the dishes as a cover, not daring to sniff or use the back of my hand to wipe at my eyes or nose until I knew she was out of the room.

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