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Homeward: Washing dishes is more than cleaning plates

Kathy and I have lived in more apartments and houses than I care to count in our 33 years of marriage.

And in all the places where we have lived, only a few have had a dishwasher. Now, I know how that may sound since a dishwasher is a prerequisite for many tenants and homeowners. But for me, it’s not something I’ve ever bemoaned. In fact, it is at the kitchen sink I learned one of the most important lessons of my married life.

Joel Houghton patented the first mechanical dishwasher in 1850. It was a clanky, slow and unreliable device. Houghton’s invention attracted little attention since it was manipulated by a crank and most thought it was easier just to keep washing by hand.

The first viable dishwasher was introduced at the 1883 Chicago World’s Fair. The driving force was to create a device that would keep servants from chipping fine china.

Englander William Howard Livens invented the first domestic use dishwasher in 1924 coinciding with indoor plumbing and running water in homes. But it was in the postwar boom of the 1950s when dishwashers became a commercial success – well, among more wealthy households, that is.

Today, the dishwasher is a commonplace, fine-tuned asset that not only washes but properly sterilizes cups, glasses and plates at temperatures of 150 to 180 degrees.

So if the modern microprocessor-controlled dishwasher is such a great domestic tool, why would I ever suggest washing dishes by hand? It’s a little less reliable than the engineered dishwasher and it is certainly more labor intensive. But the “how to” of dishwashing is not the point. It is the “why” of hand-washing.

Kathy became a stay-at-home mom soon after Kyle was born. I attended college classes and worked. As all married couples, we divvied our life’s chores. Kyle’s constant care and Kathy’s determination to make our small college apartment a castle for me to return to after a 12-hour day kept her busy and often exhausted.

At the end of one day, both tired, we met at the loveseat, sat together and wrapped our arms around each other. Before long, I felt Kathy’s body go limp as she began breathing deeply – she had fallen asleep. We both had long days, but there was more to do – items from Kathy’s list which had become way too long. Laying her head on a pillow, I rose from the loveseat, took a position at the kitchen sink, and began washing the day’s dirty dishes.

At that time, I didn’t think about what Kathy would think of me washing the dishes or if she would be pleased, I only thought how I didn’t want her to wake and have dishes to wash.

Nearing the end of the stack of plates, I looked up to see her watching me. Our eyes met and she smiled softly, laid her head down, and fell back asleep.

So many years later, we do have a dishwasher. Our lives remain hectic. Kathy and I take turns loading the dishwasher and wiping the counters and sink each evening.

Water on the floor near the dishwasher door was the first indicator that a repairman was needed. I called and we were told it would be three days before the repairman could come to our home. We would revert to washing by hand.

Kathy washed the first evening. The next day had been exhausting for her and while sitting together watching television I felt her body go limp – she had fallen asleep. I held her until the show we had been watching ended. I laid her head on a pillow, rose from the loveseat, and took a position at the kitchen sink.

I was rinsing the last of the dishes and about to dry when Kathy walked into the kitchen and our eyes met. She walked toward the laundry room and as she passed me, she grinned and said, “You look handsome washing those dishes.”

There are many acts of love one can do to build a strong marriage. For husbands, let me suggest placing washing dishes near the top of the list. Clean plates are not the only good results.

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