Yes, the last time I visited Mom I left dirty dishes in the sink. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, which I think is Latin for do I need a travel agent to book a flight on this guilt trip or can I do that online? I did not, however, no matter how much Mom says otherwise, leave them there for her to clean. No indeed, I ran hot water on the plate and glass, and then gave both a good squirt of dishwashing fluid to boot. My purpose in doing this was to allow the dishes to soak for a while, a practice I’ve found makes the inevitable job of washing the dishes that much easier. My mother and my brother the Navy lifer and not my brother the racetrack tout, on the other hand, insists on an immediate washing and drying of plates, a practice that the broad range of civilized opinion throughout the world regards as a senseless American barbarity on a par with nuclear weapons and ketchup. No cultured European, for example, would ever wash a dish immediately after using it; the very suggestion would draw odd stares from Lisbon to the Urals and cause the passersby to look askance at the Yankee Doodle Dummy who first voiced the idea. My brother scoffed loudly, as Navy men are apt to do; in the Navy one must scoff loudly so the men can hear you scoffing over the sound of the engines; and said that he liked soaking his dishes in elbow grease; that stuff works like a charm, he says.
The prolonged plate soak is not a new, old, or merely fangled idea at all, but rather one of great antiquity, first proposed by St. Ambrose of Milan in the fourth century, although the idea did not attract much attention at the time given the overall lack of washable dishes in Europe during the Dark Ages. The idea gained popularity when Charlemagne ordered the soaking of all dishes in his kingdom in the ninth century at the suggestion of his advisor, the cleric Alcuin of York, and then discovered, to Charlemagne’s great mortification, that there wasn’t a complete set of dishes anywhere in his realm; his subjects survived on a diet of TV dinners, jelly doughnuts, and canned salmon, none of which requires a plate. Even Charlemagne didn’t have a complete set; he ate off paper plates and drank his mead out of old jelly jars. The idea caught on after Alcuin sent somebody to the Pottery Barn to buy a set of dishes for the king; after the news hit the National Enquirer everyone was off to the Pottery Barn for a set of dishes just like Charlemagne’s, thus displaying for the umpteenth time the power of brown-nosing to stimulate the economy, and shortly afterwards soaking your dishes became a fixture of European life. So today the practice of soaking dishes is general throughout Europe, a practice that has shown itself remarkably resistant to any and all attempts at Americanization. Today, for example, at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, some sixty-one years after that grand establishment’s liberation by Ernest Hemingway, the dishwashing staff is still soaking a set of dishes used at a German officer’s bachelor party in 1943, and the staff will continue to soak them until the greasy patina of bratwurst and National Socialism comes off those plates entirely.
My mother, however, although she is a European born and bred, would not accept this reasoning. After some fifty years in America her natural European desire for a long dish soak has gone the way of all flesh, leaving her with an all-consuming desire for clean tableware cleaned immediately. She said that my refusal to clean my own dishes was willful laziness on my part, a bad habit I share with most of my brothers and my father as well. I denied this vehemently, and she expanded her attack of the male of the species in general, claiming that her sons, and men in general, were all a bunch of lazy good for nothings who would only wash a dish under extraordinary circumstances. Before I could deny this vicious calumny, she pointed out that the way she knew that transubstantiation, the miraculous conversion of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ during Mass, actually occurred was that Monsignor O’Reilly, a male and therefore subject to the same lazy disregard concerning dirty dishes as almost all others bearing the Y-chromosome, cleaned his own chalice at the altar after he finished, proving the existence of the Real Presence. After she finished her tirade she marched out of the room, her wrath trailing after like a banner, and headed out to her garden to plant cantaloupes for the consumption of the Elusive Beast, as we call Marmota monax in our house. I stood there for a moment and then got on the phone and called Sears—it being clear to me, if no one else, that Monsignor O’Reilly needs a dishwasher up there at the altar so he stops making the rest of us look bad.