Hot Water

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Grand Prismatic, Yellowstone, ©Richocet Dream, permission requested.  Music available at http://www.ricochetdream.com/index.html

Hot Water.

My mother’s view on what really got dishes clean was Hot Water.  This meant that our water heater was turned up higher than what, today, is the recommended hotness.  It means that my own water heater is still turned up higher than it probably needs to be.  While I recognize the ecological implications of that decision, that’s not what this blog is about.

The water in our house was so Hot that it was expected that our family understand how to run a bath without scalding themselves.  I was doing this by age four, successfully.  But, when we washed dishes, my mom wanted them rinsed in the Hottest possible water.  She was mysophobic, afraid of germs.  When we visited certain relatives and they didn’t rinse Hot enough, she had a hard time eating their food.  She would push it around on her plate, eat a small amount of whatever had been heated to a high enough temperature, but not eat the part that touched the plate.  That didn’t happen often, because her own mother and her sisters shared her view well enough that she was satisfied.  Her mother was as much in favor of Hot Water as she was.  Aunt Eulala was not quite so stringent and Aunt Ferba refused to do dishes with anyone else around.

Aunt Ferba, the eldest and most gracious of the four sisters (everyone said so), never did dishes when guests were in the house.  I have thought about that many times.  My mom and grandmother were of the opinion that a hostess cleared the table and immediately did the dishes and every female worth her femininity (and in particular, we young females) were in the kitchen helping.  My mom judged other women by their willingness to help with dishes and it led to some conflicts.  She complained (maybe even gossiped a bit) about the women and girls (especially the girls) who didn’t help out with the dishes.  So I knew, perfectly well, that when I was a guest at anyone’s house that if I asked to be excused from the table, I was really asking if I could go start doing the dishes.  This meant I hung around and listened to lots more boring adult talk than I would have liked.   (Yes, I had to ask to be excused, I couldn’t just get up and leave when I was finished eating at someone else’s house – and sometimes, this rule was imposed at home if my parents thought I was getting too uppity).

Children and teens who did not ask to be excused were regarded as poorly brought up and a potential source of future trouble.  At some point in the 1980’s, my mother acknowledged that things were changing and when I refused to ask my own daughters to follow this arcane rule (no one else in our social universe was following it) my mom just shrugged and said it was perfectly okay that her grandchildren didn’t ask, as she was their grandmother and if they wanted to leave the table any time they wanted, they got to leave.  This lead to an amusing set of circumstances involving our youngest, who actually left the table frequently and walked around while eating (something Mom still tried to discourage and which I tried to discourage when at Mom’s house – and eventually, in general, as it turns out that eating and walking at the same time is not always safe for a kid).

Anyway, the rule about the women doing the dishes after dinner meant that the party naturally broke up, Victorian style, into men going into the smoking room (back then, the men pretty much all smoked) or going outside to smoke (as Aunt Ferba preferred it) and the women, instead of retiring to the parlor, went to work in the kitchen.  This is still expected in many families I encounter here in SoCal.

Some women rebelled, they wanted to smoke, they wanted to participate in the exciting, topical, political conversations of the men.  Aunt Eulala was one of those.  Since she was my mom’s older sister and had long ago learned to make my mom pipe down (and for long stretches, had no husband to give input on her behavior), my mom didn’t much criticize Aunt Eulala for this (just a little).  My dad said nothing about it.  Aunt Eulala tended to go back and forth between the two worlds.  She helped put the food up, she went and talked with the men, she offered to cut pie and serve it.  She did not wash dishes.  Mom recognized Aunt Eulala’s wisdom and worldliness, just as she recognized Aunt Ferba’s and I think mom really tried to combine both of her sisters’ philosophies in her life.  Aunt Eulala, mom said, was the only one of the sisters who had to work for a living, she was entitled to join the men’s realm if she chose.

But Aunt Ferba abolished altogether the dual sex situation.  Everyone left the table together and everyone proceeded into her spacious (for such a small house) living room and there we interacted together as a large family, with both men and women.  The men still clumped together sometimes, but not always.  No one washed dishes.  My mom could hardly stand it.  She would “stack” the dishes, which was permitted, with Aunt Ferba frequently telling her to stop and join the conversation.  Aunt Ferba herself spoke little, but she listened so well.  She was the world’s best audience.  She was one of the most non-judgmental people I ever knew.  She claimed to have no talents (she sang very sweetly and everyone said her sense of style and interior design was the best of the family), but she laughed gaily at people’s jokes, encouraged more storytelling, poured more coffee and quickly excused youngsters from the table to go play, if they wanted.  From her, I learned the art of being a good audience (a skill some people don’t know I have – but I not so bad at it!)

Aunt Ferba, when pressed as to why she didn’t allow the dishwashing said, “Oh, I just enjoy having everyone here so much, all together, that I don’t want to waste a minute of it on something like doing dishes which, by the way, I enjoy very much.  Not everyone enjoys doing dishes as much as I do!  Tomorrow, when I do my dishes, I’ll be enjoying myself, remembering all the fine conversation from tonight – and that’s how I prefer to do my dishes; alone and with pleasant thoughts.”  She really did articulate things like that when she wanted to.

So there, in my family, were two proto-feminists.  What an awkward way to describe them.  Feminists?  They were just two women with different approaches to life.  Everyone preferred gatherings to be at Aunt Ferba’s house, but I don’t remember many discussions about why that was.

Then, there was Uncle Bob.  Uncle Bob was not as frequent at these gatherings as my other uncles because he lived in a faraway land.  Now, Uncle Bob was willing to do dishes (I think; I’m not sure I ever saw him do them, but he came into the dishwashing area, fully knowing his offers to help would be thoroughly rejected).  Then, he often hung out in the kitchen instead of joining the men.

This irked both of my parents considerably, although my grandmother helpfully pointed out that this was a very good strategy, as having my dad and Uncle Bob in the same all-masculine conversation had had unsettling results in the past.  Come to think of it, I’m not sure Uncle Bob smoked – but no one would have suggested, back then, that he could have put wanting to avoid smoke over his masculine duty.

Uncle Bob would almost always ask to dry one dish, in order to illustrate to me the Biblical principle:  that men and women dry dishes differently.  It was true!  Uncle Bob did dry dishes just as the Bible said men did, and all the women dried them just as the Bible said women did, too!  Women do not need to flip the dish over to dry it; men turn the dish this way and that.  Even at age six or seven, though, I didn’t think Uncle Bob (who was a strongly Bible believing man) was enough of a sample.  Years later, I would still be watching how men and women dried dishes, in university co-ops, in restaurants, in their homes.  It’s generally true – men and women do dry dishes differently, across several cultures (but I don’t have data for enough cultures to generalize completely about the truthfulness of the Bible on this point).

Uncle Bob was one of those guys who could resist raising his voice in an argument and I don’t think I ever heard him cuss a single bit.  Instead he would launch into some long, apparently reasonable and highly animated explanation of why his own views were correct and everyone else’s were wrong.  My dad, on the other hand, while very verbal, was not prone to giving lectures.  He told stories instead, and at a certain point in a disagreement, would flat out declare that no further words need be said, he wasn’t changing his mind.  Period.  He could and did occasionally use the word “dammit.”  My mom was precisely and exactly the same way about changing her mind, except for the cussing, which she deplored and thought put my dad’s soul in danger.  But in this overall way, they were so well suited to each other that many an argument was avoided between them (with some pouting and stomping around, but at least, no more words and dad never, ever cussed at my mother – just other men).  Maybe one day I’ll get around to telling the story about the one time mom cussed (it has to do with cold, though, not hot).

Aunt Eulala, while perfectly willing to disagree with Uncle Bob or my dad or both simultaneously, kept a sense of humor that sometimes set her apart from both Uncle Bob and my dad.  Uncle Cecil (Aunt Ferba’s husband) would listen without comment, unlike Aunt Eulala, but he would often shake his head rather than laugh.  When asked his opinions, he would say something like, “Sometimes a person just wants to keep their own counsel in their heart.”  And everyone would feel a bit chastised but in the mildest possible way.

When it came down to decisions about what to do, how to vote, whether to allow your child to listen to rock and roll or dance in the new style or whatever it was, Aunt Eulala’s advice was what I took away.  She’d actually acknowledge my presence at the edge of some of these discussions (rare thing) and lean down and say, “Just remember this:  if you do the best thing you can, at the time, with as many facts as you can get together to make your decision, and you really think it’s the best decision, don’t feel bad about it later if there are new facts:  you did the best you could at the time.”  My mom, on the other hand, deferred all these questions to Aunt Ferba who, fortunately for me, approved of rock and roll even though Grandma was pretty sure it was Satanic.

Uncle Bob would appear jovial in these discussions (even though we could often tell he was as mad as my dad), while my dad would look downright mad and sometimes stalk off.  This was known as “showing the LeValley temper” at our house.  My mom’s family did not have “the LeValley temper.”  Uncle Harold, my mom’s brother,  was expert at diffusing things, asking my dad to go help him take a look at some malfunctioning car part or to view how shiny and polished his car looked.  Uncle Harold took a humorous  view of his cars; they were always perfect, my dad while careful about washing his car, was not quite as careful as Uncle Harold and never could be, my dad lacks the perfectionist streak that Uncle Harold had.  My dad liked to poke a little loving fun at Uncle Harold’s perfectionism, they both found it funny.  “Bob probably doesn’t even wash his own car,” is something dad would say.  “Probably goes to some car wash in Los Angeles.”  Dad pronounces it “warsh.”  Now, I have no idea whether or not Uncle Bob washed his own car or not, but as a child, I was convinced that he did not.

Fortunately or unfortunately, Uncle Bob lived far away, way off in Los Angeles which, when all was said and done, was my dad’s explanation for Uncle Bob.  “He can’t help it, he lives in Los Angeles,” dad would say, once we were home and he was explaining why Uncle Bob was so wrong about something (Nixon, the Vietnam War, Catholicism, the Apocalypse, the chapters in the New Testament where this or that is prohibited, the Second Coming, whatever it was).  Los Angeles was a realm of deep corruption (like all cities, according to my dad, with Paris possibly being the worst city on the planet, far worse than L.A., even) which tainted people even when they were good people who resisted its pollution.

Sometimes, when dad was angry enough at Uncle Bob, he’d hint darkly that it was Uncle Bob’s college education that made him so rude or so wrong.  First of all, Dad would say, Uncle Bob liked to be in the kitchen with the women, talking and talking.  Interrupting the women’s time together.  Forcing his ideas on women, who were not only too busy with dishes to really put together good arguments against his positions, but, Uncle Bob should have been taking his views outside – where the men (and Aunt Eulala) were.  Then his ideas would be put to the test.  Mom agreed.  Grandma agreed too.  Aunt Ferba would laugh and say that people were all different.  Mom and Grandma didn’t want men in the kitchen while they were cleaning up, and, then, of course, sometimes both Mom and Grandma disagreed on some of Uncle Bob’s theological points (this happened a lot in our family in those days).  I would go off and read the Bible some more, often during the very same event – there were always lots of Bibles around.  Dad never saw himself as rude or wrong.  Mom often managed to conclude these evenings with an acerbic, “Well, we all know that Art LeValley is never wrong.”

Sometimes Grandma would tell Uncle Bob to pipe down.  Then, when we got home, Mom would wonder if Aunt Thelma could be happy living in Los Angeles and when, if ever, Uncle Bob would ever allow her to come back home.  Uncle Bob, happily, did bring Aunt Thelma back home – many years later, they moved closer to the rest of the family and by that time, oddly, nearly all of these little issues, these seemingly-enormous (at the time) disagreements had cooled and everyone was so different.  We used paper plates.  Mom never had anything at her house and never had to do dishes at her own house.  She stopped complaining about the water temps at other people’s houses and the two main offenders (the tepid water users) had either died or were on my dad’s side of the family.

Oddly, while there was gossip about Uncle Bob being in the kitchen, there was very little about Aunt Eulala being where ever the men were.  Dad used to say that mom’s family had a little tendency to treat in-laws as out-laws.

My dad’s family was, in general, not fond of hot water (except Aunt Freda) and my mom eventually got used to it.  Aunt Betty was an incredibly thorough dishwasher, according to my mom, no complaints there.  But there were a couple of other aunts whose dishwashing methods weren’t up to snuff.  My mom actually made a comment to one of them, when I was about six.  Not only was the water not hot enough, but not every single fragment of food was cleaned off the plate in the soapy water before it got to the rinse.  

Consider that.  If my mom was mysophobic, which she was, can you imagine what the combination of not enough Hot Water meant, when combined with little fragments of food still on the plate or utensil…did to her psyche?  She offered, she begged to be the one who washed the dishes at Aunt Pat’s house.  No way.  Aunt Pat was the official dishwasher in her own house and no one else would do it.

For one thing, Aunt Pat said my mother was so slow in her dishwashing that they would be in there all night.  No way did Aunt Pat want to spend that amount of time waiting and waiting for my mom to wash each dish and then pass it to her for rapid drying and putting away.  Mom offered to wash and have me dry, so that Aunt Pat could go…do what?  Aunt Pat was another of those “women wash the dishes, men go outside and talk about fishing!” kind of people.  And while in the kitchen, women talk about women’s things, as sure as the sun rises.

This led to one of the most famous quotes of my childhood.  We were washing dishes.  Aunt Pat was washing, it had been a big meal.  Mom was drying and I was putting away.  Aunt Pat loved me very much and praised my ability to quickly figure out where things went – not that she would have cared at all if I put them out of place (my mom would have directed the whole thing like a symphony – and that has its points; it’s nice to be able to find things again when you need them).  But Aunt Pat was happy enough with my ability to put away and said that she often just left dishes to dry in the drainer without putting them away, so it was great to have someone do it.

Mom kept frowning and showing me these little specks of sauce or whatever that were still on the plates when she, as drier, received them.  Little by little, my mom’s tea towel (no paper towels back then) was getting covered with specks of food.  Finally, mom very politely and somewhat timidly, handed a particularly egregiously still-dirty dish back to Aunt Pat and said, “Oh, this one still has a little gravy on it.”

Aunt Pat fixed my mom with a steely gaze and said, “It’s a damn poor dish drier that can’t get off what the dishwasher leaves on.

——

Now, this led to many discussions on the long trip home, through Santa Fe and Taos, across the Navajo Reservation and through Hopiland, through Cameron Trading Post and at Grand Canyon, through Little America in Flagstaff and Needles and Barstow.

“Can you believe she said ‘damn’??” was the initial thrust of the conversation.  “In front of a child!”  Unfortunately, my dad’s immediately reaction to hearing the story the night it happened was to burst out into laughter, which did not make matters better.

“Well, I guess I know more about you, then, than I ever did before,” said my mother.  Turning to me, she said (many times in that long journey and many times after), “I hope you remember this.  You never know a person until you’ve married them.  You know what you know when you marry them – and you get what you marry.  No one changes.  But you don’t really know them until you’ve lived with them a long time.”

Mom interrogated Dad.  Did he really want to eat off dirty dishes?  Of course not (he agreed a little more than he really wanted to, I think).  She hoped he knew that if he got sick, she didn’t want to hear him complain.  Would Mom be forced to eat at Aunt Pat’s house again?  Dad got riled up.  This was his sister, perhaps his favorite sister, he loved her.  Yes, she would have to eat there again (and she did, although there was strife about it for years to come).  Mom promised she would be able to go without food if necessary, for one day if it came to it.  She was so hurt.  She never went through on her threats – she ate food at Aunt Pat’s house, using her usual techniques.

“It’s a damn poor dish drier that can’t get off what the dishwasher leaves on.”  Forty years later, my mom actually laughed about it and told it as a joke.

——————

“When you first stick your hands into very hot water, it’s going to feel like you’re getting burned, but you’re not,” were my mother’s instructions.  “You have to get used to.  I’ll make it a little less hot for you right now, honey, but once you’re used to that, we’ll make it hotter.  You’ll see if you make it hotter little by little, your hands can stand a lot.”  My mom’s hands were a bit dry, rough and red from her dishwashing, her hands always looked older than her sisters’ hands, but I remember loving her hands and wondering when I’d grow up, when my hands would turn veiny and red and dry like hers.  No matter how much lotion she used, her hands, for many years, always had that look.  The water was pretty hot.  She may have been a bit wrong about the scalding part.  And, due to the invention of the dishwasher and the dishwashing husband, my hands have yet to turn into those kinds of hands (now I hope they never will!)

As a child, there were tears.  The water was so hot that I cried.  She tried to acclimate me over a long period, but ultimately, I had to face her Hot Water requirement.  She let me off the hook a lot of times, doing it herself, but by middle school, she had had enough of my wimpiness.  It was time to use Hot Water and both of my parents agreed that if they could do it, I could do it.

My friends would come over and offer to help with dishes.  All of my friends were well brought-up (they wouldn’t have been allowed back in the house, I don’t think, otherwise).  They’d squeal at the hotness of the water, they’d look at me with admiration.  “How can you stand water that hot?” they’d ask.  Mom would wash the dishes in extremely hot water, then put them in the rinsing side of the sink, where the rinser’s job was to hold the dish for quite a while under that very hot water.  The dishes themselves would get so hot, it felt like your fingers were burning.  So naturally, my friends dried and put away, I became the rinser.

I had developed many techniques for the mental part of handling hot water, but ultimately, my mother was right – you do get used to it.  When it came time to learn to take hot and heavy things out of the oven, sure I burned myself a few times, but I didn’t drop anything – I was used to very hot things.  I worried about it some (both my mom and I got some bad burns in the kitchen) but I wasn’t afraid.  My mom was certain that all women could do it and that I could do it too.  She was, I think, a third type of “proto-feminist.”  A woman who could handle hot water.

Later, when I did my fieldwork in Chiapas, Mexico (and a faulty stove exploded and singed off my eyebrows and gave me some pretty good burns) and dishwashing was by far the least of my concerns, I realized I was using the same techniques to deal with life there.  And I realized that my mother’s views on germs and Hot Water were not universally shared.

I also realized that, if you listen to multiple points of view and try hard to bring them all to the table (or the porch or the kitchen), people are bound to get hurt, testy and angry.  Years later, what matters still matters, what doesn’t, doesn’t.  My mother used to say “100 years from now, no one will know the difference.”  There is a virtue, as Aunt Ferba knew, to getting everyone in the same room and letting all the views mingle, there is a virtue to being able to handle Hot Water.

But in the work I’m doing now, she is likely wrong about one part.  Our College will still be around in the future -and what all of us who work there are doing right now may well make a difference 100 years from now.  I can assure that you all of my colleagues treat it as if it will make a difference, long after we’re dead and gone.  That’s why we do it and that’s why we have the discussions, that’s many of us tolerate the Hot Water.

The spirit of what she said, though, is true.  30,000 years from now (whether or not we have extreme Global Warming or an Ice Age), I do not think the College will be recognizable as it is today.  So, mom, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll take as my motto some of your wisest words, with just a little modification:

Honey, no one will know the difference 30,000 years from now – just do the best you can.

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