Thursday, August 11, 2011

Washing Dishes in the Northwoods

Last Monday, I drove my son to catch a van that would take him away to summer camp for the first time.  The six nights were longer than the days, but soon enough I picked up a dirty little boy who wanted to go next year for a month. 

One of his lessons learned was how to wash dishes on the trail in the Northwoods.  Dump what food is leftover and then put in pebbles and rocks and dirt and water.  You clean it with the dirt.  You swish it around and scrub it and that’s how all the germs get washed away.  It’s funny that you need all the stuff that looks dirty to actually clean the germs you can’t see.  He nodded his head quickly and I could read so much in the smile that is always there, as he said, “I know its hard to believe. But it’s true.”  If he were older, a wink would be included to seal the knowledge. 
Yesterday, even though it was overcast, I put on my sunglasses as I drove my 10 year old daughter to catch the bus for two weeks away at camp. It gives me a terrible headache to work so hard to hold back tears, so I figured I could let loose (quietly) for a few minutes on the way -- all the kids gabbing in the back.  There was no bickering, of course.  That would have helped me, perhaps thinking there would be less of it for the next couple of weeks. They were having a normal conversation, as normal as we can get these days.  Each of them was engaged with some screen, but talking about each other’s camps or apps or whatever.  Archery or Riflery or Tap Zoo or iCarly or styles of sunglasses. 
My tears were not simple tears.  I wish they were simply tears of joy.  Or the pure raw pain of sending my daughter away for more days than I have ever been away from her. Or even the slightly more evolved pain of excitement and happiness at her new adventure mixed with the pangs of letting her go. 
To be sure, I had those tears. However, my tears were also way more complicated and exponential. I cried because I was sad that our lives had been busy, busy, busy and I hadn’t made the time to enjoy more good things with her.  And now she was leaving.  I was sad that our family life when we are home seems so chaotic. Not only chaotic in the busyness, but emotionally chaotic. The bickering and nagging and general unsettledness that has set in and doesn’t seem to move out.
 The tears expressed my guilt at being somewhat relieved that my husband and oldest daughter were both leaving for a few days. When the two extreme extroverts are gone, the tenor in our home changes dramatically. Our pace is in sync and everything seems to roll along more smoothly. But there is a hole, and we are not complete. The tears were shed both for the incompleteness and the enjoyment of it. 
My tears were shed at the looming gray silence headed my way.  Chloe is pure raw energy and lives in extremes.  I find myself living, but bracing to keep up with daily life that includes her. Bracing against silence is daunting, so I know I have to ease into my rhythm without her. 
The tears hailed the passage of time. When she returns, she will be eleven.  I will not see her being ten years old ever again. Others will see her being eleven before I do.  The Minnesota sweet corn harvest just began, her favorite time of year. Sweet corn and August Birthdays herald the end of summer, and the last first day of lower school; the last year they will all be in school together.  Ever. 
So I am taking all these tears and mixing them together. The ones made of dirt and pebbles and stones and mud and the pure ones made of fresh clean water.  I am swishing them around and scrubbing. 
Because it’s funny that you actually need to see all the stuff that looks dirty to wash the germs away.


  1. Yowza lady. This is some amazing writing! I so admire your insights too. I don't think I would have the fortitude to look at those tears. It's so painful and you do it so gracefully.

  2. Oh, I love the analogy of the washing dishes, and I am SO familiar with all of the ingredients of the tears you cry ... regret, guilt, sadness, overwhelm-ed-ness. That you so much for your brilliant writing. xo