by Virginia Knowles in 2007
I confess. I guess I am just sentimental about dishtowels. This one came into my life 25 years ago, fluffy and fresh, bright with glorious rainbows, back when I was still a fluffy, fresh, and bright young college student. It arrived in a care package from my mother, nestled in with edibles and kitchen practicalities, and maybe an inspiring new book to feed my idealistic soul. My mom understood about such things (and still does). She always said that new dishtowels could perk up even the dreariest kitchen, and that rundown apartment kitchen sure needed it! We had no dishwasher except the human kind, so that towel did daily duty at my sink. And each time I would hang it up proudly so everyone could see its glorious rainbows.
And here we are now, all these years later. I wearily plop a toddler on her little oak bed in my bedroom. My tenth toddler. In my bedroom still. Someday she will move out to another room, when my first no-longer-toddler-now-bright-fresh-idealistic-young-adult-daughter moves out of the house, but we are in no hurry for that, no hurry at all. Still, I am a tired mommy, a busy mommy. And even after this particularly long and tiring day, it is not time for me to go to my bed yet, except to sit on it and fold another mound of laundry, the foothills of Mt. Neverest, as I call my unending five-loads-a-day pile. And then a wave of melancholy washes over me. Even in the dim light of the go-to-sleep-sweetie-I’m-still-right-here bedroom, I can see this dishtowel in my hand, this faded and threadbare dishtowel, with its once bright rainbows barely recognizable. It is so thin I can see through it. How has it survived this long? In these 25 years it has done its daily duties for sure:
- drying dishes (imagine that!), sometimes in the hands of my handsome and helpful young husband-to-be, who though no longer as young but still as handsome, is also still kind enough to help in the kitchen
- soaking up the drips from the leaky air conditioner in that old apartment
- laying under fresh-baked cookies cooling on the counter in our newlywed apartment or our first little townhouse
- wiping away traces of morning sickness
- playing peek-a-boo with a baby
- soothing a fevered brow of a sick child, and another sick child, and another…
- cushioning china in a cross-country move to a bigger home for a growing family
- mopping up spilled apple juice, milk, and assorted unmentionable liquids from the floor
- covering a pan of rising bread dough made by an eager baker-daughter for a family Thanksgiving feast
- cleaning a soft young face covered with spaghetti sauce or peanut butter or blood or runny nose
- wrapping an ice pack to keep it from being so cold on a bruised forehead
- maybe even cleaning a hamster cage, though I hope not…
- and much more, much much more, over and over and over again
And between each time, to sanitize it for its next task, it is stuffed in a bucket with all of the other wet smelly kitchen linens, churned with bleach and detergent in the washer, and then shoved unceremoniously into the dryer with the heat and dizzying spin, sacrificing its lovely fluffy fiber to the lint trap. Then, after being crumpled into a clean basket, it is folded and crammed into the linen closet or the drawer by the kitchen sink, or, bypassing all of these, snatched right from the dryer and put immediately to desperate use again. It is needed, needed all the time. Like me.
And so the wave of melancholy, as I sense its metaphor of my own life. I feel like this dishtowel. Old. Used up. Threadbare, with frayed fringes where neat hems used to be. Always in a spin. Like the faded rainbow, where have my once sparkling young dreams gone? I weep and wipe the tears with the towel. I hold it to my face and breathe in deeply. It is soft, so soft as it comforts me, as it has comforted others. It deserves dignity. I do not want it to be carelessly discarded by someone who does not understand dishtowels and nostalgia, so I tuck it safely into an unseen crevice on my bookcase where no one can find it. I clear the rest of the folded laundry off of my bed and sleep. Oh, how I need sleep.
I wake in the wee hours of the morning, as I always do, like it or not. My mind churns, as it often does, thinking, pondering. This is not a bad thing in itself, because I love to think and ponder and dream awake, but right now I would rather sleep. And then it dawns on me, like a glittering rainbow as a shaft of sunshine suddenly illuminates a gray and drizzly sky. This is the glory of the dishtowel, the glory of my life. What? What is the glory? Service. Being used up from constant need. Emptying myself in order to fulfill my purpose. Love working itself out in humble and practical ways. This is why I’m here: in God’s strength, serving my husband and children in our busy life-filled home, where celebrations mingle with sorrows, and the momentous punctuates the mundane. This is the life I chose, preparing young hearts and minds to fulfill their own life destinies. It is a good life.
The recent words of another bright, fresh young woman flood in to comfort me: “Mrs. Knowles,” she said, tapping me on the shoulder on a Sunday morning at church. “Mrs. Knowles, I believe the Lord wants me to remind you that your motherhood is a holy service to him. It is no waste. When you bow down to wipe up a spill from the floor, you are bowing in worship and service to him.” Remembering these refreshing words, I rise from my bed and tiptoe over to the bookcase, quietly, so as not to wake the tenth toddler, who nonetheless starts to rustle in her bed, sucking her thumb furiously until her I’m-about-to-wake-up-breathing evens out into restful sleep again. I grope around in the crevice and my hand feels the softness of the towel, the esteemed towel. There are tears to wipe again, but this time tears of gratitude. I am thankful that, unlike my lowly and lifeless dishtowel, I can be renewed and I will receive my reward.
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Jim Elliott, martyred missionary
“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:39
“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” John 13:3-5, 12-17