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Tempted by Life on a Dishtowel

Herzog, Karen. "Tempted by Life on a Dishtowel." Bismarck Tribune, 7 January 2009.


This summer, my cousin Mike and I each acquired a set of flour sack dishtowels made by our cousin Hulda. I'd worn out mine and my mom's, using them until, one by one, they became more hole than cloth. I was happy that Hulda still embroiders so I could replenish my supply.

Once, everybody's moms and grandmas embroidered dishtowel sets, always in sevens, one for each day of the week. They'd iron on the designs from ink transfer patterns - vegetables, puppies, cats, flowers, sunbonnet girls.

Each day of the week was illustrated by its chores: Washing, ironing, marketing, mending, baking, cleaning, church.

Life on a dishtowel moved along smoothly, the oiled wheels of disciplined time management, of routine, regularity, order.

Looking at that embroidery - mine has housewife/cats doing their chores - reminds me why, in January, stores advertise storage tubs and organization systems. They know we would love to have this kind of order, a place for everything and everything in its place. Our spirits are willing, but our flesh is weak, said St. Paul.

No longer tied to a washboard or a wringer washer and a clothesline like our grandmothers, we can wash any day of the week. Ironing is becoming a lost art thanks to fabrics that don't wrinkle. Marketing is a screeching stop at the grocery store after work. Mending? What's that? Socks with holes once were darned, a thought now positively antique. We still bake, but not the weekly dozen loaves of bread. Sunday church still holds for many, though for busy families, Saturday or Wednesday might be as likely.

The seven-day dishtowels are now more a talisman, a touchstone of a bucolic time now receding ever faster.

But before we revere that particular pattern of work too much, it would be a tonic to remember the reality of the slogging, numbing labor that lay behind that pretty embroidery. Hauling buckets of water, summer and winter. Baking on a wood stove and in non-air-conditioned summers, cooking from morning 'til night for threshing crews.

Perhaps it's not the same chores we think we want, but the routine. Being in control, staying ahead of the mob of chores that keep chasing us, waving their pitchforks and torches, demanding that we do this or do that.

Almost every single person I talk to will say the same thing: Our lives today are frantically busy, so many options, so many "musts" and "shoulds." Instead of labor-intensive chores, our lives mandate a mountain of paperwork, actual or virtual. We are inundated by forms, warranties, applications, verifications, PINs, reimbursements, receipts, statements. To live an average life today requires the skills of an accountant, a computer technician, a business manager, an attorney, an ombudsman and a host of clerical help.

No wonder we look at a set of dishtowels and think: Only seven? Just seven jobs a week? Mending clothes versus trying to decipher the IRS 1040 workbook? Baking versus attempting to interpret the arcane intricacies of a health care plan? Ironing rather than trying to resolve a billing mistake from the phone company?

I'm perfectly aware that, if called upon to work as our grandparents did, lots of us would simply keel over. Nevertheless, sometimes I look at my embroidered cats and think: Wanna trade?

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