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messes

Many years ago, when I was living in Los Angeles and visiting my father and stepmother Elizabeth fairly often, I would have conversations with both of them, but mostly with Elizabeth. She described her mother as the type that would send her children out to enjoy the beauty of the day, the way the sun touched the leaves, the sound of the birds. She said her mother was not much for housekeeping. She was more for art.

Elizabeth and my father had housekeepers who generally took care of the heavy work. Elizabeth washed dishes this way: she kept a metal container, like a crock, sort of like a compact squat vase, in the sink. In this container was water and, I think, dish detergent. She would put tableware into the crock, standing up, soaking, and she would wash dishes as they came through, for the most part. I recall her mentioning to me one day that she was impressed to see how chefs worked, the way they did their "side work", cleaning each utensil as soon as they were done with it, wiping down counters, keeping the kitchen clean and ready even while cooking. I know that when she mentioned this to me she was suggesting that I might consider adopting such a method, given my technique of letting dishes pile up in the sink and spill over onto counters until there was no way to cook.

Maybe it was because of my memory of the "mean housekeeper" we had years ago, when I was a child, Mrs. Mackie, that I was not ready to pick up this idea for keeping a kitchen clean. Mrs. Mackie was disgusted with us children, the way we did not clean up after ourselves. She said all we had to do was rinse our glasses and other dishes right after we used them. At that time I thought, "yeah, with no detergent. How clean is that?" but mostly I just hated her and anything she said was automatically not a good plan for me.

So it came around again with Elizabeth and I still was not ready. I think we sometimes cannot force change in ourselves; we have to be ready for it. One thing I remember, though, is that I never saw Elizabeth tackling large loads of dishes, ever. She didn't have to.

One day my father and I made bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches in their kitchen. (Obviously this was well before I went veg.) Elizabeth always cooked bacon in the oven. We cooked it in a frying pan, and of course spattered the stove. The bacon then drained on paper towels and the whole enterprise took up the entire small kitchen, and when we were done it was quite a sight. It struck me that although Elizabeth was not a clean freak I had never seen the kitchen like this before.

I said to my father that it had occurred to me that Elizabeth only cooked those things that were not messy. He said yes, that was true. I sensed a small sadness in him that he was not allowed to mess up the kitchen, making dishes he remembered fondly from childhood but that could not easily be made cleanly. Elizabeth not only cleaned up as she went along; she also minimized the opportunities to make messes in the first place. Thus she was able to relax and enjoy other things as she had learned from her mother. My father, though, who was nostalgic and sentimental, didn't find a way through this for himself.

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