It was the way I was washing the dishes that kind of tipped me off.
John was down in New Brunswick for the new Wednesday evening Eucharist service at Christ Church, and I was making baked macaroni and cheese, partly because I kind of like to make baked macaroni and cheese, and partly because the cheese drawer is a little too full, and I hate throwing food away. While the pasta water was gradually coming to a boil, I wanted to do a little clean up, so the kitchen would look a bit more calm and presentable when we were dishing up our meals.
And as I was racing through the process, I noticed the feeling in the pit of my stomach -- a familiar feeling, certainly, but it hadn't occurred to me to trace back to its origins. Why should washing the dishes, while John was probably now on his way home, fill me with such urgency and dread?
What a surprise it must be to discover that this behavior, too, springs from my childhood -- specifically, from the period between my brothers' return from the Orphanage, and their being shipped back again, barely eighteen months later. My father and stepmother would often leave the house in the late afternoon or evening, and, because I was the oldest, I was left 'in charge' of my brothers. (My half-sisters would invariably go with my step-mother, to stay with their grandmother, who couldn't buy them enough dresses and toys) We all had homework to do; there were assigned bed times to be observed, and each of us had a list of chores to have finished before being locked into bed for the night. My job, usually, was to clean up the kitchen and wash the dishes.
I think I was all of twelve, or maybe as old as thirteen. I was good at getting my homework done quickly, if no adults were around. And while my brothers sat at the dining room table, struggling with their arithmetic and spelling lessons, I would do one of the many forbidden things -- I would turn on the stereo in the blond wood case, and play the one 'classical' record in my dad's collection -- 'The Peer Gynt Suite', by Edvard Grieg.
I suppose it was understandable that my dad didn't want his stereo equipment ruined by his oldest son -- even though he himself rarely listened to any music at all -- but I wasn't certain why I'd been specifically forbidden to listen to the Grieg album. It's not as if it was poisonous, I thought. And of course, the taboo is always more attractive than the permitted, so I would listen to these melodies over and over again, allowing the music to transport me. The only cut I wasn't particularly fond of was 'In the Hall of the Mountain King', because it got so loud that I was sure my parents would be able to hear it in the car, on their way down the hill and up our driveway.
And of course, because I was under the spell of this seductive, evocative music, time was passing, and my chores weren't getting done. Until the very last possible minute, at which time I would race as quickly as possible to sweep the kitchen floor, wipe down all the counters, take out the trash, and wash and dry the dishes and put them away. Washing and scrubbing and rinsing in a blur of hands and soap suds, all the while expecting to hear the crunch of the tires on the concrete drive. Dreading what would happen, if I weren't able to finish my work in time. Working as quickly and yet as carefully as I knew how.
This, of course, is what I realized I was doing this evening, in spite of the fact that no one is assigning me anything at all, that my father is dead and I stand the very good chance of never seeing my stepmother again, and that if I want to, I can play the Peer Gynt Suite on my boom box, as often and as loudly as I would like.
But the habits are more stubborn and durable than I would have expected. The postures I adopt, and the inner stresses that reassert themselves without the need of threat or thought, all act as a backwards-looking mirror, if I'm awake enough to notice this.
As I was, this evening, for once. And when I literally had to remind myself that John is nothing like my father or step-mother, or my horrid grandmother either, for that matter. Because I was washing the dishes as though I was about to be punished again.
These aren't things I look for, as though they were old merit badges or especially excellent report cards from grade school. These behaviors permeate my daily life, usually in ways of which I am completely unaware. I was just recalling to John how, two years ago, on one of our last visits with his mother, she had remarked, after I'd planted a flat of some 50 spreading rosemary seedlings in her back yard, that I always seemed to work so fast. For someone who was always made to feel that he'd never done enough, and certainly hadn't done what little he'd managed to accomplish in anywhere quick enough a pace, this was a startling observation. She noticed that... I was working? She though that... I was working... quickly? Why was I working at such a driven pace, after all? The shrubs weren't going to die if they stayed in their cozy flat for another ten minutes. What was the rush?
There's always a rush, because there always was a rush. It's never enough. And I wonder if, someday when I'm washing the dishes and expect John to be pulling into the driveway any minute now, I can finish the chore without the feeling that I'm about to be punished, no matter what.
There's a lot recorded in my bones and my muscles, that's for sure. I wonder what other late-breaking realizations I'll have, as my life winds down, and the hope of altering any of these rediscovered behaviors becomes less and less likely?
Now I'm going to wash some more dishes, and see if there isn't some Grieg I can listen to, without worrying about who overhears me.
© 2013 Walter Zimmerman