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Dinner Plates and Ashtrays - Non-Fiction Short story

Updated on October 19, 2015

Growing up, chores were an expected part of my daily routine.

Growing up, chores were an expected part of my daily routine. There was no arguing with my parents about it; no deals to be made to try to get out of doing them. It was simply expected that my bed would be made each morning before I left for school. Every evening, after our dinner meal, it was understood that the dishes would be washed, dried and put away before I could do anything with anyone. Likewise, my little brother had his chores, one of which was to take the trash out after the dinner dishes were done. All my friends had chores and they too were expected to do them without complaint and without monetary compensation, because we were, “Grateful to have a roof over our heads and food on the table.” It was clearly a different time “back then.”

Making my bed each morning was a snap. I had learned how to pull and tuck the sheets, blankets, and bedspread in record time. Fluffing and placing the pillows and assorted stuffed animals could be done in a matter of minutes. I had it down to a science and I was proud of that.

Clearing the table after dinner and washing the dishes was a much more complicated matter, and to put it bluntly, I despised it. Of all the “chores” expected of me, I found scrubbing the toilets and washing the dinner dishes to be the most distasteful. The dinner dishes were the absolute worst.

My parents were smokers.

My parents were smokers. In those days people smoked anywhere and everywhere; in their houses, their cars, the grocery store, at the movies - virtually everywhere - and my parents were no exception. I hated it! My clothes and my hair always smelled like a dirty ashtray. Driving anywhere with my parents was sheer torture because they would smoke in the car. I honestly thought it couldn’t get any worse, until I was given the chore of “the evening dishes .”

Mother lived and ran the house by a rigid schedule. The table was set when my dad got home from work each night. He would walk through the doorway, descend into the basement where he would change out of his work clothes and shower. By the time he emerged from the basement, dinner was on the table, ready for the family to sit down and eat.

Dinners were rather pleasant family times. Mother and Father would share amusing stories about their jobs, the people they worked with or a happening in the neighborhood. My brother and I would chime in with our own tales from school. The table chatter was our way of communicating within the family – something I looked forward to until the eating was over, and Mother and Father would pull out the cigarettes.

Children were not excused from the table

Children, during those days, were not excused from the table until the adults made that decision. Usually it was not until they felt the meal was over or until they wanted to discuss something not fit for young ears. So we would sit, watching them puff their cigarettes, blowing their second hand smoke through the air, and flipping their ashes into the uneaten items on their plates. The most disgusting thing of all came when they stubbed out the butts in the remnants of a potato skin, cantaloupe rind, or some other item remaining on the plate. That was the signal that dinner was over and it was time to “clear the table.”

Now my mother was a practical woman, working hard and keeping our house spotless. One Mother’s Day my father brought home a portable dishwasher; the kind you could sit in a corner and, when needed, roll to the sink, fill it up with dishes, attach hoses to the faucet, plug it in, and turn it on, letting modern technology do the job for you. The dishwasher lasted three days before Father had to return the gift. According to Mother it took up too much space, was noisy, took too long to wash the dishes and made more work than it saved.

I had developed a strategy

I had developed a strategy to accomplish putting off what I dreaded until last. First, I would collect all the items that belonged in the refrigerator, avoiding at all cost, the sight of the plates with the cigarette remains mixed with food leftovers. Next, I put away the salt, pepper and napkins. Now it was time to run the dishwater. While the sink filled with the warm sudsy mixture, I gathered cups, glasses, serving bowls, plates and silverware. I washed all these items first; placing any food that mother had instructed me to keep into smaller bowls, covering them with plastic wrap, and then finding a place for them in the refrigerator. I would collect the pots, pans and anything else used for cooking and scrub them. Everything had to be rinsed at that point, and then placed strategically in the drainer. Sometimes, if the drainer was quite full, I would get a drying towel, dry off the clean items and put them away. After draining the dirty water from the sink, another batch of soapy water was prepared and the table and counters were wiped clean.

The last part of this job was almost as bad, if not worse, as scraping and washing the horrible plates themselves. I guess I had detailed ways of doing things because I followed in my mother’s footsteps. She had a definite method of dislodging the brown paper grocery bag out of the plastic trash bin by pulling the top sides of the bag together and folding them over to one side. This sealed the contents inside the bag and created a handle to pull the bag out and head to the trash cans outside. This worked pretty well, unless there had been an abundance of trash, wet trash, or if someone had spilled something on the upper portions of the bag. If there was a spill or an overflow, then pulling the bag together and folding it was very unpleasant, and if, by chance, the scrapings from the defiled dinner plates were part of that, it was unbearable.

Pulling the bag from its holder was tricky at best; a major feat if full of damp refuse. The goal was to pull it slowly and evenly out of the bin, before making a mad dash for the outside trash can, without the bag tearing and spilling its contents. If a spill happened, there was a cleanup that rivaled any hazardous waste situation taken on by the government.

I took the trash bin out from under the sink and picked up the first plate, trying not to look at its contents. I grabbed a fork and scrapped so hard it made an awful, skin curdling squeal, and then set it on the counter next to the sink. I grabbed the next plate and repeated the process, stifling a gag and holding my breath at the same time. Then I placed the trash as far from the sink and as close to the back door as possible.

Going to extremes

Now, I washed the forks and any remaining dirty items leaving “the plates” until the absolute last thing to wash. When the inevitable moment arrived, I submerged the plates into the soapy water, wadded up the dishrag so that no part of my skin made contact with anything that even remotely resembled what had previously been on the plate, and scrubbed as hard as I could. A scalding hot water rinse followed and I set each plate in the drainer, and then pulled the plug in the sink.

Now it was my poor little brother’s turn to take out the trash. He was as disgusted about taking the trash out to the larger garbage bin as I had been about scraping and washing “the plates”. There is just no smell like damp refuse mixed in with a day’s collection of emptied ashtrays in a brown paper bag. But my brother was a trooper. I would prepare the bag, pull it out of the plastic bin and hand it, as quickly as possible, to my waiting brother, who would dash out of the house to the garbage, holding his breath and praying that he would make it without incident.

One night my mother observed our total disgust for this whole process and the extremes to which we went to deal with it.

“What on earth is your problem?” She asked.

With Mother, you learned early to pick your battles and fight gently. I figured that she had just fired the first shot.

“Mom, its bad enough that you and Dad smoke at the table, but couldn’t you at least use an ashtray instead of your plates?”

“Have ashtrays on the dinner table? Now that would be disgusting.” She retorted.

“Well maybe you should just eat out of ashtrays then. I don’t see where it would make a difference.” My response was blurted out before I could even consider that it was not the best choice of words. Mother’s scowl confirmed it wasn’t. She walked away, saying nothing more about it that night.

Tension hung in the air like a thick blanket

The next evening, Mother told me to set the table while she finished working on a project. Dinner was in the oven and would be ready at the appointed time. I began setting the table, just as I had done numerous times before; placing the silverware next to the plates, and the glasses above the tips of the knives. The only things different, were the glass ashtrays that were sitting at Mother and Father’s place on the table, where their plates should have been. I knew I was taking a chance, but if it got the message across, it would be well worth whatever punishment was meted out.

Father arrived home as usual, descended into the basement, took his shower, changed and emerged just as I placed the food on the table and announced, “Dinner is ready.”

My mother and father sat down, looking at the ashtrays, at each other, and then at me.

“Hungry?” I asked, acting as if nothing was out of the ordinary.

Tension hung in the air like a thick blanket. I had no idea what would happen, but was prepared for just about any retribution.

Instead, my mother looked at me and quietly said, “Okay, we get the point.”

I got up and replaced the ashtrays with their dinner plates. There was no yelling, no arguing, no banishment from the table or grounding for an undetermined amount of time . . . and from that evening on there was no smoking at the table or using the dinner plates as ashtrays.

There was no longer any second hand smoke, no terrible smell, and our evening meals became more pleasant for everyone. The only thing that didn’t change was the disgusting rubbish bin ceremony. That would be a battle my little brother would have to fight.


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    • miss_jkim profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago


      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, I'm so happy you enjoyed it.

    • profile image

      Joshua Smith 

      7 years ago

      I loved this, really well done!

    • miss_jkim profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Wow epigramman, you have left me speachless with your words of praise. Thank you once again.

    • epigramman profile image


      8 years ago

      .....your writing style is just like that 'blue willow'

      pattern - simply unforgettable in its honest simplicity - and to be quite honest with you - I am simply amazed!

    • miss_jkim profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Well I wouldn't have been surprised if that would have happened, but this was a true story with a happy ending.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I would have been struck with that ashtray. Fun perspective though.


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