Picky Judy's Picks: Tea towels and the genetic code
Having guests in the house exposes the nooks and crannies of your marriage and the gaps in your housekeeping, like the way you use your dining room table to pile up any mail or junk you’ve collected that week. At dinnertime, your guests have to guess whether it’s okay to clear that table to eat meals there. “Should we eat in the kitchen instead?” they ask tentatively. As a good host, you answer, “yes,” and silently promise to clean the table off the next day, but of course, you don’t.
It also exposes the obsessive-compulsive rituals you engage in unthinkingly every day, like having certain refrigerated foods only on certain shelves of the refrigerator. Instead of heading out to the beach, you spend a half-hour moving the orange juice and the vegetables to their proper places so you can sleep in peace that night without worrying about them languishing in the wrong spots.
Each of my guests this summer has asked me about one ritual I engage in, in particular. When the house is full of company, a lot of dishes get used, and they don’t all fit into the dishwasher. Some select few get washed in the sink and stacked into the dish drainer. Usually, a terry-cloth dish towel hangs over the back of the chair nearest the kitchen sink, or on the nearest rung of the dish drainer, both places where it can be grabbed easily. But when I am ready to clear some space by hand-drying a few dishes, I don’t use the dishcloth that hangs in view, I sneak one out from behind the dish rack. That one is my secret, hidden, known only to me.
“Why do you have two dish towels?” each of my women guests asked when they caught me doing that.
I told them why. The two dishcloths represent a solution to one of the ongoing disagreements between my husband and me. He likes to wash his hands in the kitchen sink after being outside doing chores. Then he uses a dishtowel to wipe them. As he does, I think of the skin cells that will be left on my towel and transferred to the clean dishes when I wipe them. So, I hide a linen tea towel to dry dishes and leave the other one for Ron to use.
I felt a little freaky revealing that obsessive side of my personality to my girlfriends. I attributed it to my RN education. But after hearing my explanation, each of my friends revealed the truth about themselves. “I do that, too,” each of them said. Their husbands also wipe their hands on dish towels and neither of them like it either. We all laughed with relief when we found out we were not the only ones to worry about skin cells.
But then I was curious. To test out how widespread this practice is, I visited Joyce, a few houses away on the Neck, and told her about the dish towels. Joyce is the cleanest of my friends. I often refer to her kitchen as “the operating room.”
Joyce heard me out, and then she got up out of her chair and motioned me to follow her to her kitchen sink. There, hanging on the outside of the cabinet below the sink was a dish towel. “This is for hands,” Joyce said. Then she opened the cabinet. Inside was a hook with another tea towel. “And this is for dishes…
“I laid down the law a long time ago,” she told me, and then she laughed in her mischievous Irish leprechaun chuckle, making me so glad she and Charlie Hayback finally made it back here this summer.
I told Roberta down on Beach Avenue about this conversation and she said, “Oh, I have one on the outside of my cabinet and one inside.” It turns out her husband, Alan, also breaks the tea towel rule.
If we hadn’t had guests, I would have never known there is a universal dish towel divide in the genetic code. But now that I know, I’ll be giving them as wedding gifts to provide young brides and grooms with enough towels to keep harmony in their homes. I’ll have them embroidered: “hands” and “dishes.” And, even in this modern age when men do chores, I’ll know that only the women will use the “dishes” towel only for dishes.