She washed dishes for three generations. Enough!
From the Relief Society Magazine, June 1943 –
Tch! Tch! Grandma!
By Olive W. Burt
To all outward appearances, this summer morning was just like all the others. The family sat crouched behind wide-spread newspapers, reaching out groping hands for buttered toast and orange slices. Grandma, alone in her little newspaper-walled world, found plenty to do, keeping food within reach of those bodiless hands.
Yes, it did seem just like all other mornings. Breakfast over, the girls rose and stretched and moved into the living room. Judith turned on the radio and curled up in a big chair with a mystery story; Patty sat down and began to do her nails; their mother puttered about with the house plants, and their father dashed out of the house, in his usual rush to get to work.
“It’s a lovely day, isn’t it?” Jessica asked without looking up from the geranium from which she was plucking dried leaves. “I think I’ll try to get a few moments to knit on that afghan I’ve been doing for the Red Cross for the past six months.”
Grandma began to clear the table. In the wrinkled old face the blue eyes were alive and young with resentment. She had thought maybe today would be different. She had done what she could to change it, but apparently it was of no use to try.
She scraped the dishes and piled them high in the sink. Dishes! Grandma’s stomach contracted with distaste. How many millions of dishes had she done in her lifetime? She had begun wrong, she guessed, being born the youngest girl in a big family. Her first job had been to wash dishes while her older sisters did all the exciting things like making cakes and cookies and gingerbread, unrestrained in their efforts, because they knew Mary would have to do the dishes they stacked up.
Then she had married, and there were dishes three times a day. Dishes and babies. There had been a half respite in the years after the children were grown and married, when Frank had been there to help her after every meal. Then he had gone on and she had come to live with Jessica, and do dishes.
This was all they thought she was good for, all of them. Let her go for a visit to John’s or to Joseph’s or Agatha’s, and the dishwasher took a vacation.
The telephone rang.
Book, nail polish, flowers scattered to the four winds as the family made a dash for the phone. Patty got there first. The inviting smile was wiped from her face as she dropped the receiver and said listlessly, “It’s for you, Grandma.”
Patty returned to her nails.
Grandma came slowly to the telephone. She hoped the family wouldn’t notice her eagerness. She picked her answers carefully, mostly monosyllables; “Yes. Yes? Tomorrow? Yes. All right.”
She went back to the kitchen. The dishes were still distasteful, but Grandma wasn’t thinking about them now. She turned on the water and sprinkled the soap powder into it. It fluffed up. The phone rang again.
“It’s for you again, Grandma!” called Patty.
The family wasn’t curious yet, but if they had been they wouldn’t have heard a great deal. The third time they had to call to her, though, they did listen, and when the fourth voice asked for Mrs. Sheldon there was frank impatience and curiosity in their faces.
“What is it, Mother?” Jessica asked, but Grandma just said breezily, “A little war work I’m trying to do.”
There was no use to try to pry further. If Grandma wanted to talk, nothing could stop her; but if she didn’t want to talk, well, nothing could start her.
Jessica was pretty sure it was some doubtful project, but she’d hear about it sooner or later.
Grandma went into the kitchen, took off her apron and hung it up. Then, with pencil and notebook she sat down near the telephone.
“You aren’t going to keep the phone all day, are you?” asked Judith. “I’m expecting a call.”
“So am I!” answered Grandma tartly. “Your friends will have to take the same chance mine do.”
It must have been an hour later that Patty went into the kitchen for something.
“Why, Grandma!” she cried, “the dishes aren’t done!”
“Aren’t they?” asked Grandma sweetly.
“You know they’re not!” Patty was accusing.
“I didn’t know anything about it. I know I didn’t do them,” Grandma went out of the room and up the stairs.
Jessica looked at her daughters.
“Something must be wrong with Grandma,” she said. “You girls better do the dishes this morning.”
It wasn’t as simple as that, but the dishes were finally done. About that time Grandma came downstairs, hatted and coated, and stepping spryly along.
“Where are you going, Grandma?” asked Jessica sharply.
“To work,” said Grandma, and opened the door. Then she turned back.
“I am willing to pay for my board and room, Jessica, now that I’ve got a job that pays me,” she said. “Or I can go somewhere else to live if you’d rather. I’ve had two offers of a home this morning – with pay! I didn’t take them, but I can. I am going to work now, everyone else is working but you and the girls, and as your part of the war effort, you can do your own dishes!”
She shut the door sharply and walked briskly down the street.
Jessica looked bewildered.
“Grandma, of all people!” said Judith. “And what kind of job can she get, an old woman like that!”
“Oh,” said Patty slowly, “one of the women this morning said something –” She grabbed the morning paper and rifled the pages, stopping to study one intently. “Yes, here it is!”
She read aloud: “Elderly woman in excellent health and fond of children would like to care for babies of defense workers. Day work preferred. Dial 6-4220. Mrs. Sheldon.”