by Jennifer Ginn—

During a visit to a parishioner in a rehabilitation facility, I heard someone say: “That dishwasher was 50 years old when it died!” That comment was followed by others’ differing takes on the pleasures of having an automatic dishwasher. One person said she liked best unloading and putting clean dishes in their places. Another individual voted for loading and the pleasure of not washing by hand.

This sent my mind racing. First, to my own preferences: I’d much rather load than unload. I enjoy trying to get every last cup or Pyrex bowl in there, moving these puzzle pieces around till everything fits, then closing the door and starting the machine. Done!

Next I thought about the dishwashers in my family and my spouse Loyd’s family. Loyd’s parents washed dishes in the sink, hardly ever a one-person job. I loved watching the two of them—Edna and Charles (or Mama Nee and Pop-Pop, as their grandchildren named them)— washing and rinsing and drying together. It was an art, and truly, they preferred to do it themselves, between the two of them. No dishwashing tub needed—a double sink would do fine. They delighted in filling both sinks, then scrubbing and rinsing and placing each dish “just so” on the drying board. They didn’t have much money and even less time, but they could do this small thing their way.

My family’s version was completely different. My dad was hardly ever involved. Not because he didn’t offer to help, but because my mother wanted the dishes done her way. She did them herself, donning rubber dishwashing gloves and drawing the hottest water possible for the dishwashing tub. She would never have washed in the sink without that tub to go inside it! She rinsed each dish under hot running water, carefully placing each one in its spot on the drying rack. The frequently used dishes lived right there on that rack, rarely finding their way back to the cabinet. I always knew exactly where to go for my favorite dish or cup.

My in-laws, more accustomed to living in the pastor’s parsonage than a home of their own, rarely had a dishwasher. My family did have one installed during a kitchen renovation when I was in college, but it turned out to be entirely unnecessary. My mother simply didn’t trust it to get her dishes clean. She did the dishes by hand because she could.

Remembering my two families’ dishwashing habits made me smile. But it also reminded me of something I wouldn’t have said about them years ago, when they were still “keeping house” and cooking for their families. Now I can say it (and it’s important to do so): The choices that my mother and Loyd’s mother made about how they washed dishes were made out of privilege.

It’s true that both were born into families that did not have wealth or easy lives. My grandparents and my parents—Loyd’s, too—had to work hard to support their families and give their children a decent chance for their own lives. But they had advantages. They lived in a culture that assumed their good intentions, their worth and their right to make a life for their families. They found jobs. They worked the land. They got an education and were able to hope and dream about offering an even better education to their children. They were taken seriously as farmers and even, in my grandfather’s case, as an oil-field worker. When they came back from serving their country in the wars, they received financial help from their country to buy homes and start their lives over again. They didn’t live in the best neighborhoods—true for both sides of our family. But if they’d had the money to do that, no one would have kept them from it.

That’s privilege. It was theirs because they did not face obstacles of race, ethnicity or religion. They were American-born, white and—I’m gonna say it— Protestant Christians. In all kinds of ways throughout the generations of my family and Loyd’s, opportunities came to them that did not come to others. I am grateful, of course, for the sacrifices they made to give me a good life. I am also sorry that it took so long for me to see their privilege and, on a much larger scale, my own.

The Rev. Jennifer M. Ginn is a retired ELCA pastor who enjoys writing, coaching and serving as an interim pastor. She lives in North Carolina with her husband and two furry children, one a Jack Russell terrier and the other a yellow cat with a temper.

This article is excerpted from the July/August 2021 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather