Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble

The Magic in Your Hands

My wish for you, my friends, is to see magic in the every day.

Visiting my ancestral home became bittersweet after the loss of my parents. Over the kitchen sink is a window that faces east and overlooks a real, unfenced backyard whose daily visitors include deer, turkeys, groundhogs, and more. Dad's garage where he tinkered and fixed everything for everyone still stands, and beyond it is the garden area where my parents grew vegetables to feed six active children. As I prepared to wash the dinner dishes, I gazed out that window to notice a single doe lingering under the pear tree that was a Father's Day gift to my dad more than 25 years ago. My mind cleared, I felt the day's tensions begin to fade, and I alone began the ritual completed thousands of times with my mother.

Since I was old enough to stand on a chair to reach the counter, Mom and I would clear the dinner table and assume our positions for dishwashing. She always washed, I always dried and put away. This was non negotiable. The hot water, she said, soothed her aching, arthritic hands. While our hands were occupied with tasks, we sometimes discussed the mundane, the esoteric, regaled family legends, and hatched new schemes. Often she would hum a melody that was familiar but unknown to me, but mostly we worked together in a comfortable silence that spoke volumes.

Scientific studies have shown that the simple task of dishwashing relieves stress and fosters mindful thinking. “I was particularly interested in how the mundane activities in life could be used to promote a mindful state and, thus, increase overall sense of well-being,” said one study's author.

Grown and alone in that place, I recalled my mother's simple joy at soaking her hands in the warm dishwater. With a deep breath, I plunged my own cold, aching hands in the water and felt an immediate comfort and soothing of my body and my soul. Here, in this familiar place with anxieties vanquished and the body engaged in ritualistic task, permission was granted for the mind to roam.

There is a beauty in the orchestration of a good wash: Waiting for just the right water temperature before filling the pan; squirting just the right amount of richly fragranced soap (and reveling in the tiny bubbles that pop out of the bottle for a brief dance with gravity); inhaling the aromatic therapy that ascends from steam and the swishing of water to aerate and infuse the bubbles with life. Then, there is a carefully planned order of dish entry into the water: Clear glass is always first, followed by plates, silverware, serving ware. Depending on the degree of residue, a second round of soap and suds could be necessary before tackling the cookware.

When the last pot is cleansed, drain the water, flip the disposal switch (if you're advanced enough to have one, my mother was not and never wanted one, our plates were scraped into a bag and taken out back for the wildlife to enjoy), rise the suds from the sink by cupping hands under the faucet and tossing on the walls (no sprayer, either). Wipe hands, then counter with a clean, preferably hand-embroidered tea towel made by grandmother. Apply a generous amount of Cornhuskers lotion to your cuticles, hands, and forearms up to your elbows. Wipe counter with tea towel and hang neatly to dry. Straighten items on the counter and survey the area to see that everything is in its night time place.

In that moment of completion, I felt reconnection with my female ancestors knowing that this nightly ceremony mirrored their own--a ritual that cleanses the workspace through toil and magically rinses troubles down the drain.

As I took my offering of food scraps outside, the doe turned to acknowledge me from the sanctuary of her pear tree. I bowed slightly and accepted her benediction. Good night, Mom.