From It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It
© Robert Fulghum, 1988, 1989
Reprinted from Villard Books, a division of Random House
AFTER THE DISHES ARE WASHED and the sink rinsed out, there remains in the strainer at the bottom of the sink what I will call, momentarily, some “stuff.” A rational, intelligent, objective person would say that this is simply a mixture of food particles too big to go down the drain, composed of bits of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and fiber. Dinner dandruff. Furthermore, the person might add that not only was the material first sterilized by the high heat of cooking, but further sanitized by going through the detergent and hot water of the dishpan, and rinsed. No problem.
But any teenager who has been dragooned into washing dishes knows this explanation is a lie. That stuff in the bottom of the strainer is toxic waste–deadly poison-a danger to health, In other words, about as icky as icky gets.
One of the very few reasons I had any respect for my mother when I was thirteen was because she would reach into the sink with her bare hands–BARE HANDS—and pick up that lethal gunk and drop it into the garbage. To top that, I saw her reach into the wet garbage bag and fish around in there looking for a lost teaspoon BAREHANDED-a kind of mad courage. She found the spoon in a clump of coffee grounds mixed with scrambled egg remains and the end of the vegetable soup. I almost passed out when she handed it to me to rinse off. No teenager who wanted to live would have touched that without being armed with gloves, a face mask, and stainless-steel tongs….
I lobbied long and hard for a disposal and an automatic dishwasher, knowing full well that they had been invented so that nobody would ever have to touch the gunk again.
Never mind what any parent or objective adult might tell me, I knew that the stuff in the sink drainer was lethal and septic. It would give you leprosy, or something worse. If you should ever accidentally touch it, you must never touch any other part of your body with your fingers until you had scalded and soaped and rinsed your hands. Even worse, I knew that the stuff could congeal and mush up and mutate into some living thing that would crawl out of the sink during the night and get loose in the house.
Why not just use rubber gloves, you ask? Oh, come on. Rubber gloves are for sissies. Besides, my mother used her bare hands, remember. My father never came closer than three feet to the sink in his life. My mother said he was lazy. But I knew that he knew what I knew about the gunk….
My father, however, would take a plunger to the toilet when it was stopped up with even worse stuff. I wouldn’t even go in the room when he did it. I didn’t want to know.
But now. Now, I am a grown-up. And have been for some time. And I imagine making a speech to a high school graduating class. First, I would ask them, How many of you would like to be an adult, an independent, on-your-own citizen? All would raise their hands with some enthusiasm. And then I would give them this list of things that grown-ups do:
–clean the sink strainer
–plunge out the toilet
–wipe runny noses
–clean up the floor when the baby throws strained spinach
–clean ovens and grease traps and roasting pans
–empty the kitty box and scrape up the dog doo
–carry out the garbage
–pump out the bilges
–bury dead pets when they get run over in the street
I’d tell the graduates that when they can do these things, they will be adults. Some of the students might not want to go on at this point. But they may as well face the truth.
It can get even worse than the list suggests. My wife is a doctor, and I won’t tell you what she tells me she has to do sometimes. I wish I didn’t know. I feel ill at ease sometimes being around someone who does those things. And also proud.
A willingness to do your share of cleaning up the mess is a test. And taking out the garbage of this life is a condition of membership in community. When you are a kid, you feel that if they really loved you, they wouldn’t ever ask you to take out the garbage. When you join the ranks of the grown-ups, you take out the garbage because you love them. And by “them” I mean not only your own family, but the family of humankind.
The old cliché holds firm and true. Being an adult is dirty work. But someone has to do it.