A lovely woman from the prairies recently told me a touching story when she described her father as he would come in from the harvest for the afternoon meal back home on the farm. The aroma of hot baking powder biscuits, roasted meat with gravy and an apple pie filled the kitchen as he stripped down to the waist and poured water from the pitcher into the washbasin on the washstand by the back door.
He scrubbed down with a washcloth and the bubbles from a bar of handmade soap her mother had made, as he washed away the morning’s dust, grime, and perspiration. He lathered the back of his neck, behind his ears, and under his arms. He washed his hair with the same soap and the simple suds left a clean smell on his skin. Sometimes, he would shave, right there in the kitchen.
With his hair still damp, he donned the clean shirt his wife had hung on the hook for him, and sat down there in the kitchen with the rest of the family for the afternoon meal.
Many years have passed, his children now have families of their own. They live in large modern homes with multiple rooms to bathe in, and his daughter buys soap from a local artisan for her father.
One day recently, the farmer asked his daughter, “Why don’t I wash my hair in the kitchen anymore?”
There was a closeness about washing in the kitchen that he missed, the intimacy of performing life’s little routines together as a family that he longed for. Nostalgia filled the woman’s voice as she described her memories to me, so simple and yet so profound. The act of washing in the kitchen seems so ordinary, yet so very precious as the years slip away between them.
The beautiful story she shared with me got me thinking about family, the connections we share, what we have gained with modern convenience, and what we may have inadvertently lost.
Traditionally, the nurturing of a family took place in the kitchen; preparing food, washing and ironing, the non-descript family rhythms of work, play, and an agricultural life. Teeth were brushed at the washstand in the same kitchen where baths were taken one at a time on a Saturday night in front of the stove that both heated water and fed the family. Dishes were washed with the same handmade soap used to wash hair. Times were simpler, work was hard but tasks were a little sweeter when performed together in the kitchen.
Like many modern families, I have multiple bathrooms in which to wash, brush teeth, and shave. There is quiet dignity in washing behind closed doors, but somehow, I find myself imagining a small prairie home with a washstand in the kitchen where family is close together to work and play. Will my family be as knit together as the family that still talks about washing together? As autumn turns to winter, my thoughts turn to nurturing my family this holiday season, and I wonder if I will heat water on the stove and ask everyone to wash in the kitchen?