Monday, February 13, 2012


Abuela had that look after dinner. In the weeks following the surgery for her broken hip, my one-hundred-year-old grandmother has become increasingly bored and restless. Though her injury confines her to a wheelchair, Abuela still wants to be useful and help around the house. And in the three years she's lived with my family, the dishes have consistently been her "job."

Maneuvering the wheelchair into position was tricky. But with me standing at the sink and Abuela's chair angled between the sink and the dishwasher, we came up with a partnership system that worked pretty well. I rinsed the dishes and silverware, then handed each item to Abuela so that she could find a place for it on the racks of the machine. It took some time, but we eventually filled the dishwasher and started the cycle. Then I tackled some of the bigger items - pans and serving bowls, or the rubber spatulas and wooden spoons that we usually wash by hand. Abuela meticulously dried each dish, a towel on her lap to catch the drips. Then as I put away the dried dishes and wiped down the sink and countertops, Abuela carefully hung her dishtowels over the edge of the sink to dry, her practiced fingers smoothing out every bump and wrinkle.

Even though multiple strokes and dementia have eaten away at my sweet grandmother's short-term memory, there are some things she will never forget. Washing dishes must be one of those things, like riding a bicycle or tying your shoes. Gertrude Elizabeth Dudte, my grandmother, was raised on a farm in Newton, Kansas. Washing dishes was something she probably did from the time she could stand on a chair or a stool and help her mother and sisters in the kitchen. She's been washing dishes for about ninety years!

Recently our family doctor asked Abuela, "So, are you still doing the dishes and folding the laundry?" Abuela seemed surprised at the question. "Of course," she answered, as if he had been asked her if she's still eating three meals a day. "It's my job."