I've seen the same plate in the dishwasher for a week and a half now, which is about as long as it’s been since Jack’s last day off. The two occurrences are not coincidental. If, during the unloading procedure, I notice a plate—fork, bowl, pot, what have you—that has somehow escaped the cleaning process, I simply put it back. Most often this works to my advantage, since one of two things will usually happen: 1) The dishwasher will eventually erode the baked-on food. 2) The dishwasher will fail to erode the baked-on food within a reasonable amount of time, so Jack will provide divine intervention.
This Sunday is no exception.
• • •
“How long’s this dish been in here?” Jack asks, before we cook our eggs. He furrows his brow and scratches at the damning evidence. He knows exactly what I’ve been up to.
“That one?” I ask.
“Yes, this one.” He looks at me, vaguely annoyed.
“I don’t know. They all look the same to me.” I feign interest in the residue before I busy myself in the fridge. “Looks like the eggs you had last week. Why didn’t you rinse it before you put it in?”
Jack is silent. With my head buried in the refrigerator, I’m not sure if that silence has meaning. It seems unlikely for him to forget he never had eggs—that was me. But when you’re as busy as Jack—an architect for whom the priorities of life are redrawn as follows: building, family, God—and you’ve been together long enough to forget the simple things, like how you started sharing socks in the first place, life tends to blend together into one big soupy mess. Which is, incidentally, easily eroded by the dishwasher. Of course, it’s equally possible he knows I’m full of shit. Either way, I’d prefer to just ignore the matter.
I spot what I’m looking for—a yogurt cup—and head for the cutlery drawer. The offensive dish is soaking in the sink and Jack is unloading the top rack. I open the drawer to retrieve the appropriate utensil, and notice an alarming absence of spoons in the cutlery tray.
• • •
Years ago my mother would pack my lunch in one of those insulated zip-top bags all the children used to carry. Mine was a self-inflicted somber shade of navy, which I suppose was a reaction to its predecessor—a shade of neon pink so shocking that a cube-shaped after-image was a routine part of my lunch hour. More often than I deserved, she would entrust me with an item from the cutlery drawer to go along with my dessert, usually a container filled with vanilla or chocolate pudding, homemade. There was just one problem with this arrangement: I never knew what to do with the spoon afterward. Even when licked clean with the particularity of a cat, it still retained the adhesive properties of used milk, and the idea of a gummy utensil rolling around in my filthy desk or sullying the inside of my bag was enough to set off my gag reflex—somehow, it would always end up with a thin coating of lint and hair. So—and I’m ashamed to admit it—I would sometimes throw them out.
I felt bad about this every time I dangled the spoon over the classroom garbage can, holding it by the end with two soft fingers and a will as weak as my grip. The trouble was, my best friend Lynn would gurgle with glee every time I did it. I loved that sound, the sound of acceptance and unity, of camaraderie and lunchroom heroism, a sound that evoked feelings far greater than my feelings about any spoon. And so I let them fall, blissfully unaware that with each drop I traded a series of lasting objects for fleeting and momentary laughter.
• • •
I once made the mistake of looking into the garbage can afterward, the image of the solitary, discarded spoon amongst half-eaten apples and plastic wrap all too real, too present. So I reminded myself these weren’t exactly spoons from my mother’s set—these were their duller, more utilitarian, more suspicious counterparts, the ones with an S engraved on the handle (S for Sabena Airlines, or “souvenir,” according to my mother)—and banished my guilty conscience until I had the next urge to dispose. Perhaps I believed I was playing God, doling out punishment and speeding along the selection of the fittest. Aesthetically, that is. Or perhaps I was just fooling myself, somehow believing that one spoon here and there didn’t matter, couldn’t make a difference.
• • •
It wasn’t until I was emptying the dishwasher on a Saturday afternoon, reluctantly, at the height of my disposing spree, that I noticed our stock of stolen spoons had dwindled to an obviously low number. I stood there, utensils in hand, mouth forming a perfect O. Much like the cigarette butts I would throw over the garden wall at home, many, many years later, it had become apparent that small things can and do add up. And sometimes start a fire. Which, on the plus side, destroys the evidence.
And so, just like that, I stopped.
• • •
I thought I’d gotten away with this unfortunate series of disposals until last month, some two decades later, when my mother approached me in my own kitchen over a glass and a half of wine.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you…” she said.
“Yes…?” I looked up from the de-corking process, a risky bit of business for someone as uncoordinated as myself. The wine opener was one of those pricey numbers, a happy-looking chrome and plastic doll on the end of a corkscrew that seems innocent enough until you meet your chin with the business end of that smiling face and need stitches. It hasn’t happened to me, but it has happened to Jack. Eleven years later and he still can’t grow a beard in that spot.
“Do you know what happened to my spoons?” my mother asked.
And once again I was ten years old, standing over the cutlery drawer, mouth forming a perfect O.
“Why would I know what happened to your spoons?” The lie came out of my mouth easily, although the cork was proving stubborn. I worked away at it, moderately grateful for the distraction.
“Because your dad doesn’t know what happened to them.”
The cork popped. I poured two glasses and nudged one in her direction.
“You know, Mom, I’m pretty sure you always had that many spoons.” I took a sip of wine and frowned. It tasted bitter. I looked into my glass and noticed a substantial amount of cork floating on top.
“I counted them,” she said.
Of course she did.
• • •
The thing about my mother—and even more so, her mother, and her mother’s mother—is this: she generally has a greater understanding of value than I do. Despite vivid memories of running through Toys “R” Us with a twenty dollar bill clenched in my sweaty fist and crying out to anyone who would listen, “I must find something with good play value!”, I have thrown out actual cutlery, and sometimes, when I stick my heel through a pair of threadbare socks, I colour the air with a few choice words before I deposit those socks, too, in the trash. (In my defense, I have persisted in wearing them and that only results in sticking to the linoleum and embarrassing myself in polite company. Also, one of the benefits of sharing socks with my spouse is that I can always blame him for the holes). My mother, or surely my grandmother, would have gotten out a darning needle and yarn—whether immediately or not—and mended those socks, thoroughly, satisfactorily, and without complaining.
• • •
This past Christmas, while setting out spoons for our dessert—Sex-In-A-Pan, my grandmother calls it, although I prefer DineSafe names like Mississippi Mud Pie—I placed a spoon in front of Lynn and reminded her about the good old days. She laughed at the memory but this time without glee: I was too lazy, she told our friends, to rinse the spoons and bring them home. An appropriate observation coming from the same woman who, well into her thirties, threw out an entire container of spaghetti, Tupperware and all, because it had gone moldy in the refrigerator. She lamented then, too, as she did now, about how our mothers would surely have emptied and cleaned the container, but she couldn’t be bothered, what with how vile it was; whereupon I mournfully agreed and dished out the Mississippi Mud Pie. Plus there was the time it would take, I said in solidarity; and with the enormous amount of water, soap, and bleach needed to clean the pot, wasn’t she actually doing the environment a favour?
Oh Jesus, my mother would say. The world is going to hell in a handbasket.
• • •
In a way, Lynn was right that day, her observation keen and apt as always. I was too lazy to rinse the spoons and bring them home. But I was also eager to hear her laughter, to bond, to create memories for us to share. It’s ironic that, in so doing, I may have contributed to the eventual disposal of those memories as well. What I wouldn’t have given for one of those spoons at Christmas to place in front of her, instead of a member from my own set—shiny, new, and as yet meaningless. And what I wouldn’t give for one of those spoons when I’m an old woman, and when Lynn, along with my stock of available memories, might be long gone.
Standing before my mother in the kitchen, I ventured one index finger into my wine and chased a piece of cork around the surface until, finally, I pinned it to the side and dragged it to the rim. I looked up at her, cork pinched between two soft fingers. I was fairly certain she knew; there was a glint in her eyes too early to be the wine, and the right side of her mouth was lifted upwards. Surely I could come clean, I reasoned; I’d have my own children soon enough. Sufficient time had passed to make my actions uncollectable, like invoices that had gone unsent, or even funny, like those pants my grandfather burned at the dump. And surely I ought to come clean. I didn’t want my mother looking for those spoons as my grandmother had for those pants. As she continued to look for those pants.
“Ahh…” I said, and laughed, flicking the crumb into the sink. “It’s a funny story…”
• • •
I lick the yogurt from my spoon and wonder about the retribution for my actions and the fate of my own cutlery in the hands of my potential spawn. The spoon I’m holding isn’t a nice one, exactly, and it doesn’t match the rest, but it’s part of the set Jack and I had when we rented our first apartment. We used to push the loveseats together and eat cereal within its high walls, facing one another, the soft cushions our own island, complete and hidden from the world. These days, we still eat cereal together, but we eat it side by side, facing out, on a single designer couch. Unlike the previous sofa, the successor is beautiful, but it is also unyielding, akin to the steel and glass structures he exhausts himself to produce. You can’t go back, they say. I can’t help but wonder if it’s worth it, and for how long it will stand.
When I confessed to my mother in the kitchen that day, she didn’t scold me. Instead she told me about an old, marked pot my great-grandmother used to have. When my mother was a child, she’d watch her grandmother stand at the sink, washing that old pot, slowly, carefully. And every time, her grandmother would say, “Your grandfather made that mark,” and smile into the soap suds. He was long gone by then; she didn’t go shortly after.
That’s the other thing about my mother. She always knows what to say.
I look at Jack from across the kitchen. He’s working at the baked-on eggs, leaning against the counter the way he does when his back hurts. My face softens and I go to the sink. I can’t take away my actions, but I can repent. And above all, I can keep my children away from the cutlery.
“Jack,” I say, spoon in hand, “When we have kids…”
I drop my spoon into the water and immerse my hands into the soap. It isn’t as warm as it should be and for a moment I think about pulling my hands out. But I don’t. I keep them right there alongside his own.
“Don’t let my mother pack their lunch.”