"Hey! Careful, that's my grandmother!" I barked harshly, immediately regretting my tone. The woman at the sink next to me looked down at the cheap white plastic plate in my outstretched hands, that she had been reaching for, and then back again at my face quizzically. Embarrassed by my sudden outburst, I let go of the plate, and looked down intently at the sink filled with plates identical to the one I had been possessive of, a moment ago.
It was just past dinner time at the soup kitchen and my arms were elbow deep in a sudsy sink filled with plates bearing witness to pasta with marinara sauce. My unpaid tickets from years ago had caught up with me and I'd opted for community service at the soup kitchen in lieu of some portion of the fines. I had just returned to Boston after 13 months of being an urban gypsy around the developing world. I felt lost, lonely and stuck in my life and wasn't sure what lay ahead. My mind was filled with a million thoughts that needed to be spoken out loud before they could become memories and my body was tired. My shoes were worn out and I knew I hadn’t outrun whatever set me off on this whirlwind journey. I was eking by, moving awkward pieces of a set on and off-stage for the successful "Debbie Does Dallas" production during the weekends. In addition, I baby-sat for a couple of friends during the week but money was tight and couch surfing was getting old.
For the past eight Tuesday nights, I had been coming to the soup-kitchen to pay off my parking tickets. Seeing those less fortunate than I should have been enough to inspire gratitude and hope, but it just wasn’t working. I found myself living in dark gloomy rooms in my mind. As I pondered the seemingly disparate pieces of my life story, and the never ending stories within stories, I so desperately wanted the pieces of my life to fit together with the beauty, grace and precision of a Japanese mandala jigsaw puzzle. I didn’t know how to pray or what to pray for, and needed a ritual to soothe me. I chanced upon the idea of washing each piece of my story in the soapy water while praying for some clarity, some understanding. And so with everything I had in me; confusion, self-pity, shame, doubt, fear, and the tiny shred of faith I was holding onto, I started to wash each thought that came up in my mind along with a plate. And so it was, that as I pondered my rather challenging relationship with my sole living grandparent, Mara had tried to grab the soapy plate a moment before I was ready to surrender the thought.
If you've never been in a correctly set up manual dish-washing area, it might help if I explained a little. If cost or other reasons preclude the use of a shiny new Hobart, the correct health and hygiene protocol requires four separate sinks. One sink must exclusively be devoted for hand-washing, i.e. a place where hands and not dishes are washed. The other three sinks must be designated as dish-washing sinks. The first of these three is filled with hot soapy water. The second contains hot rinse water, and the third usually contains cold water with bleach, in order to sanitize the dishes. Every dish must go through the sinks in this precise order and spend at least 15 to 20 seconds in the third sink before being air-dried. The soup kitchen at the community center had two hand washing sinks and three sets of stations for washing dishes. I never asked, but I'd estimate that an average of 3000 people were served at each meal during the nights that I was there. Clearly this necessitated a large number of volunteers, willing like Mara, or forced by circumstance like myself, to rub shoulders as we washed thousands of dishes.
On the night that I first met Mara, she was at the second sink in the station where I was sudsing the dishes. I'd been the first to arrive at the back area, and had quietly filled the sinks enjoying the calm before the frantic activity. I'd picked the sink that suited my height best, and begun to quietly wash my thoughts with the plates, gently letting them land in the rinse water. I'd accumulated a decent pile of washed dishes in the rinse sink before others arrived. I noted the presence of an older woman slide into place next to me, who with surprising efficiency, rinsed and transferred the plates into the sanitizing sink. Robert, an older man with a dour expression occupied his customary place wearing his ipod and his trademark purple gloves as he removed dishes from the bleach water, shook them with a quick snap of the wrist and arranged them on the large steel dish racks.
Following my unexpected outburst, I felt compelled to explain that I had been washing some of my life’s challenges with each plate, and that I appreciated her gentleness in handling the plates. She smiled a smile that crinkled the corners of her eyes and bowed her head in acknowledgement. As I handed her the next plate, she looked up at me quizzically, that smile still twinkling in her eyes, as she said, “And who is this beautiful being that I hold so lovingly in my arms?”
And so I talked about the boy who had just broken my heart, about the dog who I had to put down, the parents who were disappointed in me, the health struggles, the failed marriage, the girlfriend who betrayed my trust, the fear about my future, the shame of not being good enough, the fear that I would lose it all, and the fear that I had nothing to lose. And through it all the dirty plates kept coming. I soaped, she rinsed, I talked, she listened.
Usually, there is a preliminary step before washing dishes, where the food scraps from each plate are scraped into the compost bin before the plates are washed. On pasta nights however, the "scraper" position was eliminated since experience dictated that no scraps lingered. This allowed us to talk uninterrupted for hours, well, it allowed me to talk and her to listen. And what a generous listener she was – she encouraged me with her kind twinkling eyes, a gentle question here and there, and a steadfast presence that made me feel safe and held. It was the quality of her attention that held me there at the sink for hours that day.
After the first couple of hours, I found myself telling the joyous travel stories I hadn’t had a chance to savor yet. With each of the next fourteen plates, I lovingly held one of the teenagers I had taken to India on a community service project over the summer. I had shared my homeland with them, and they had allowed me to rediscover it through their eyes. And this community service experience was allowing me to integrate that journey. I told stories of spirit that uplifted my heart and cheered us both on, as our fingers pruned and backs ached. I raised a soapy plate to Vania, whose cerebral palsy traps her body in a wheelchair, but whose spirit soars high in the clouds. I skidded a soapy plate right into her sink as I let out a whoop of delight for the generous gift of airline miles that had allowed me travel through the fall. She let out a contented sigh as I described a swim with an ancient sea turtle and a magnificent sunset in Hawaii. I raised a soapy plate to teachers everywhere and she blew bubbles through it.
As the last of the dishes were done that night, we stretched our backs and eased our aching arms into our coats. I felt as light as the bubbles and for the first time in months, I looked forward to what beauty the next day might bring. I didn’t know how to express my gratitude except for a heartfelt thankyou and a hug at the door. As we walked in opposite directions, she turned back to yell, “Hey, what’s your grandmother’s name?”. “Lakshmi”, I yelled back. “My name’s Mara. I’ll see you next week,” came a voice that was receding in the darkness.
And so passed the next few months. I looked forward to washing dishes with Mara. More than that, I looked forward to unburdening my mind and finding peace and greater clarity within. It was as if I spent all week stirring the muddy waters within me, complaining that I couldn’t see the moon’s reflection, while Mara allowed me to rest, until the mud sank to the bottom and clear water rose to the surface, allowing the moon to be seen dancing upon it. She never asked me my name. She just called me Lakshmi with that special twinkle in her eye.
I’d found a part-time job and a studio apartment and things were slowly starting to look up. My parking tickets had long been paid but I couldn’t and wouldn’t give up my Tuesday nights with Mara. We laughingly called ourselves the “Suds Buds”. And then one week, just as I was leaving for the soup kitchen, I got the call that grandmother was dying. As we washed dishes that day, I talked to Mara about the reasons that led to my estranged relationship with my family. She listened, attentive as always. As we parted ways that night, she slipped a piece of paper in my hand and said, “Listen to your heart Lakshmi, and you will hear what you need to know.”
Mara had written me a check that would cover my round trip airfare to India, but the choice to go home, could only be mine. As I reflected on the past few years, I could finally see how much like my grandmother I had become- stubborn and unwilling to yield. I decided to trust in Mara’s guidance and let the winds of fate (and Delta Airlines) fly me home.
I won’t bore you with the details of our family reunion and the many shades of remorse, guilt, blame, anger and recrimination that guard the pathways to the ever-embracing heart. Suffice it to say, I spent the last four months of my grandmother’s life, serving her, cherishing her and the ways of her love. I learned all over again, what it means to be with family, to be a part, and still gently stand apart.
Grandmother died surrounded by her surviving 3 children and 7 grandchildren. As the oldest granddaughter, the one who had been named after her, I was given the honor of bathing and preparing her body for her funeral pyre. As I dressed her in the saree that she had been married in, I tucked next to her heart, a tiny slip of paper with the name “Marnie”, the name I had given myself for the past 7 years, the American sounding name that really sounded like a Hindi word for death. I had wanted Lakshmi to die, and instead, I was finally ready for Marnie to die. I wanted grandmother to know that I was ready to be Lakshmi again, and that she could rest proud of me.
A few days after the funeral, as I began to gather up my things to return to Boston, I saw a familiar face next to an article in the newspaper- “Mara Whittleby, heir to the Whittleby Plate Company dies in her sleep.” She had never once mentionedthat she owned the company that made those cheap plastic plates that we washed each Tuesday night.
I returned to the soup kitchen one last time, and washed every single plate while giving thanks for Mara, my suds bud!