Splish-Splash

According to the website of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the dishwasher was invented in 1886 by Josephine Cochran, whose grandfather invented the steam engine. I’m not surprised that a woman invented the dishwasher. When I first encountered that bit of history, I assumed Josephine must have hated washing dishes as much as I do. However, the website claims she had a passel of servants. Problem was, they weren’t washing dishes fast enough for her. Adding insult to injury, they broke her china, which may have resulted from her efforts to speed up their progress, if she’d stopped designing machinery long enough to think about it.

In what eventually turned out to be a smart business move, Josephine Cochran established the KitchenAid® company to manufacture and sell her invention. Her product made a big splash with restaurants and hotels at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, but her dishwashers never caught on in the home appliance market until the late 1950s, long after her inventing days came to an end.

My first experience with Josephine’s creation occurred during my first year at college. As usual I was low on funds and on Wednesday, checked the college message board in search of an odd job to replenish my discretionary spending budget. The earnings from my weekly snack shop job had run out and I wouldn’t see another paycheck until the following week. To my delight, tacked to the top of the cork bulletin board was a three-by-five card touting a weekend babysitting position. I couldn’t believe the pay — fifty dollars, which in today’s economy is the equivalent of eight times that amount, a veritable windfall since I’d barely had enough change in my purse to make the phone call informing my new employers of my availability.

I ripped the card off the board and scanned down for the phone number, which is when I spotted the problem, the reason no sane student had snatched up this godsend. Tiny print at the bottom of the card read: caring for four boys under the age of seven. I hesitated briefly, but after years of babysitting my four younger brothers, a foolhardy sense of self-confidence overcame my doubts. Job announcement in hand, I headed for the bank of pay phones lining the hall. Had I had more sense, I would have continued on to the library and spent the rest of the day on my geometric algebra homework. Instead, I ignored the warning bells in my brain, and made a decision I blame on desperation and perhaps a touch of homesickness. Happy as I’d been to escape my four younger brothers, I often found myself missing them. Based on this bit of insanity, I dropped two nickels into the pay phone and dialed the number.

Mrs. Stewart answered the phone on the fourth ring. She sounded out of breath.

“I’m calling about the babysitting job this weekend?”

“Oh thank heaven,” she said. “Are you available?”

“I am.”

“And have you had experience with young children?”

“I have four younger brothers,” I explained, “and I’ve been babysitting since I was eight.”

“Wonderful! We’ll pick you up at four on Friday and our flight gets back late Sunday night. Is that okay?”

“Um, sure.”

“You’re welcome to sleep over Sunday night if you’d rather, or we can drive you back to school, it’s up to you.”

“I’ll need to come back,” I said. “I have an eight o’clock class Monday morning.”

“That’s no problem. Thank you dear, we’ll see you day after tomorrow.”

From the relief in her voice, I could almost picture Mrs. Stewart dancing across her kitchen floor, which is when I realized I’d made a mistake.

Four o’clock Friday rolled around in the nick of time since by then I was flat broke, penniless. I couldn’t have afforded the ten cents needed to call and cancel my babysitting job if I’d been confined to my room with the flu, which might have been a better option. I waited in the college’s formal lounge for Mr. Stewart’s arrival. At exactly four, a tall handsome man who looked barely older than a college student strode through the front door and glanced around.

I quickly stood up. “Mr. Stewart?”

“You must be Marcy.”

I nodded and we shook hands. I followed him out to his car, an aqua and white Ford station wagon dubbed the suburbanite chariot by that bastion of picture journalism, the New York Daily News.

I soon learned that Mr. and Mrs. Stewart were the Barbie and Ken of Oak Road in Briarcliff Manor, a sleepy well-heeled suburb of New York City where my college had taken up residence. Arriving at their white Cape Cod house, Mr. Stewart introduced me to his wife Carolyn, who was dressed to the hilt for her plane ride to Miami, as people did in those days before airplanes turned into the equivalent of big city buses in the sky. Today you have to ride a tour bus, preferably in Mexico, to experience real luxury travel.

Mrs. Stewart handed me a piece of paper with a long list of information including the name and phone number of their hotel in Miami, the name and number of the children’s doctor, the children’s friends, and the children’s grandparents, along with the children’s weekend schedule including bedtimes, meal times, food likes and dislikes, allergies and medications. Glancing down the list, I couldn’t help but wonder why my mother never provided a similar babysitter list for me, but with a no-nonsense British mother and a General Patton father, our household wasn’t big on catering to kids. If you disliked your food at dinner, you had three choices–lodge a complaint, a strategy that led nowhere, down the food, or go hungry, which may explain why my brothers and I will eat almost anything placed in front of us.

After reviewing her list with me, Mrs. Stewart introduced the children whose names and ages remain burned in my memory. There was the bookworm, Jonathan, one month away from eight. I immediately understood the escapist origins of his reading habits; the five-year old twins, Michael and Kevin — Dennis the Menace in stereo; ­­and Patrick, nearly three, whose activities I soon learned included dipping his drinking cup into the toilet when he was thirsty. I’ll leave to the imagination the remaining sordid details of the boys’ weekend behavior except to suggest their parents might have benefited from purchasing a copy of Barbara Woodhouse’s then bestseller, Difficult Dogs.

Other than the boys, what sticks in my mind most about the weekend is the Stewart’s pink dishwasher. I can’t remember the brand, but it was probably a KitchenAid. Unfortunately, Mrs. Stewart left no list of instructions on its use, assuming I suppose, that any household with five kids had to include updated appliances and therefore I must know about dishwashers. However, in my family the kids were the dishwashers, so until I set foot in the Stewart residence, I’d never encountered the mechanized version.

Friday night’s meal was easy, consisting of Swanson’s frozen TV dinners, which the boy’s scarfed down in less than five minutes counting the time the dinners traveled from oven to table. To prevent arguments, for which I was grateful, all the meals in the freezer were the same: two thin slices of turkey, a small mound of mashed potatoes and gravy, with green peas and a tablespoon of hot cranberry sauce on the side. Fortunately, the Stewart freezer contained extras and I heated up two for myself.

On Saturday, the meals were up to me. I’m a good cook, but neatness isn’t one of my virtues and even after a simple meal of fried chicken, boiled potatoes, and corn, followed by ice cream for dessert, the kitchen was a mess. Following dinner, I bathed the three younger boys, instructed Jonathan to shower in his parents’ bathroom and finally managed to have the kids in bed and asleep by around 8:30, two hours after beginning the process.

I was exhausted. What a treat, I thought, not to have to wash dishes. Never thinking to rinse the dishes first, which you had to do in those days, I at least scraped the remnants into the garbage pail before loading the plates and silverware into the pink wonder. The tub pulled out like a drawer and I leaned over, reaching down to load the machine from the bottom up, even managing to stuff in the vegetable pots. Dishwasher filled, I located the stainless steel pull-out soap rack under the sink. Rummaging through a variety of cleaning products, I finally found what I was looking for and poured the detergent into the dishwasher, turning the dial to the on position. Dishes done, I left the kitchen and headed to the living room with my reading material, William Brinkley’s Don’t Go Near The Water. The irony never struck me until later.

About halfway through chapter one, Don’t Give Up the Ship, a movement in the dining room caught my eye. I could see the whole room from my perch on the living room couch. Glancing up, I noticed with horror a foot-high foaming amoeba flowing like some alien creature, out of the kitchen and onto the dining room’s shiny hardwood floor. Stricken with disbelief, I wondered if the boys had sneaked into the kitchen to play one last trick before succumbing to the sirens of sleep. My wonder quickly turned to distress as the beast from a grade B horror flick advanced onto the Stewarts’ expensive Persian rug.

I flew off the sofa, moving to examine the nature of the beast, which on close inspection seemed to resemble a cascade (pun intended) of soapsuds. With a sinking feeling I made my way to the kitchen, choosing a route through the front hall, only to encounter the same effervescent phenomenon there. I persevered, entering the kitchen to watch in dismay as the pink dishwasher spewed forth mounds of foam. For reasons unknown to me, I was responsible for an Old Faithful geyser spitting and sputtering a fountain of froth throughout the Stewarts’ kitchen. In shock at the sea of spume blanketing the floor, I waded across the kitchen grateful to have worn my tennis shoes. Up to my knees in suds, I fumbled with the pink monster’s dial and eventually turned off the machine.

What had gone wrong? Panicked, I called for help, thankful my mother accepted a collect call.

“You can’t use laundry soap in a dishwasher,” she explained, after I related my tale of woe, spewing angry words at the offending machine and kicking the scum from the doorway as I talked. Unfazed, my mother added, “Dishwashers require special dishwasher soap.”

“How was I supposed to know that?” I wailed.

“Nothing to do now,” she said, exhibiting her typical British sense and sensibility, “but to clean it up. I’m sure the dishwasher will be fine.”

I wasn’t so certain. I hung up the phone and spent the next couple of hours mopping up the mess, after which I emptied the abhorrent appliance and proceeded to wash all the dishes by hand. At some point approaching midnight, I fell into bed knowing Sunday promised to be a better day since the four Stewart kids were scheduled to spend most of it with friends.

Sunday morning arrived on schedule, as did the neighbor who arrived to pick up the boys for their play date. Once they all left, I set about making amends for trashing the Stewart’s dishwasher. I owed them big time, but how to repay? Glancing around the kitchen I noticed all the Revere Ware® pots and pans on the overhead rack, their copper bottoms a dull gray-black. One by one, I removed the pans, scrubbing their dingy bottoms until the copper shone, all the while practicing my speech to the Stewarts about how I broke their dishwasher. While I couldn’t wait for their return, I dreaded telling them the tale of Old Faithful.

In the end, I needn’t have worried. Mr. and Mrs. Stewart behaved like two teenagers from the minute they came through the front door, recounting their wonderful weekend and barely listening to my abject apologies about their dishwasher. Eventually, I steered them into the kitchen where Mr. Stewart pulled out the dishwasher drawer, stuck his head inside and declared it ‘clean as a whistle.’

“B-but,” I stuttered.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “a little soap can’t hurt this machine and so what if it did.” He turned around and winked at his wife.

I thought he acted a little drunk, but I was standing right beside him and for the life of me I couldn’t detect the odor of alcohol on his breath. As I puzzled over Mr. Stewart’s odd behavior, I heard Mrs. Stewart let out a small exclamation as she noticed the sparkling pots and pans hanging on the rack above the stove.

“Oh my dear,” she breathed. “They’re beautiful. You didn’t have to do that.”

“I was trying to make up for the dishwasher,” I explained. “I’m really sorry if I broke it.”

“Don’t worry a thing about it,” she replied, reaching for her husband’s hand. “We had such a wonderful time away from the kids, we can’t thank you enough. I hope you’ll come back and sit for us again.”

“Of course,” I lied, relieved at how well everything turned out, particularly when Mr. Stewart counted out seventy-five dollars instead of the promised fifty.

On the ride back to college, Mr. Stewart hummed Broadway tunes the whole way and I realized he was probably drunk in love with his wife.

As for me, the sounds dancing in my head weren’t Broadway songs but advertising jingles. One, in particular: If it’s got to be clean, it’s got to be Tide.

To this day, I can’t bring myself to buy Tide.