The Twelfth Letter: Disposable Things & What Is Normal


Dear Daughters,

We use cloth napkins at our house.

Not fancy ones, but cloth napkins none the less. Some of them are actually cheap IKEA dish towels. We’ve probably got thirty or so, having acquired them in sets of two, four, or six at a time over many Christmases.

We use these cloth napkins when we have people over for potlucks and I know things will get messy; we use them when it’s just the three of us over a lunch of leftover pimento cheese and slices of mandarin orange, and oatmeal for the baby. We use these napkins to wipe off your sticky fingers or your face, to wipe up drips of yogurt from the floor. It’s easy to toss them into the perpetually half-full laundry basket that lives beside the washing machine. These napkins are stained with spaghetti sauce and yellow mustard, and one is fraying from a hole eaten away by Clorox bleach.

A few weekends ago, your dad and I went out of town and one of your sets of grandparents came to stay for a few nights. Because I didn’t want them to have to worry about doing laundry while they were here—and we normally do a lot of laundry—I got out the paper napkins. Normal, regular napkins seen in dining rooms all across America.

As I set the table for dinner the first evening, placing the napkins on the table, the toddler looked at me and said, “What’s that, Mommy?”

“What’s what, Bean?”

That.” You pointed to the napkins. The paper napkins.

And then I had to convince you that this little flimsy piece of tough tissue was the same thing as the heavy duty cotton that usually camps out on the table.

I must admit that I felt little bit proud of the fact that my almost-three-year-old child didn’t recognize a paper napkin as being a napkin.

I like that, for you, the default napkin is a cloth one. It’s normal. It’s ordinary. It isn’t anything special.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I want “normal” to be for you, what your default will be. I don’t want, for example, having people over for dinner to be an exceptional thing. I want it to be normal, maybe even expected.

I want it to be normal that we sit at the dinner table all together to eat dinner most nights, normal that we sometimes have people stay with us, guests in the guest room for the weekend, or a friend in transition for a few months.

I want it to be normal that some things go in the recycling bin, that Bible stories are part of the bedtime routine, that drawing and coloring and painting and playing with PlayDoh are just as entertaining as kid-friendly TV, that being outside on the swingset is the most fun of all.

I want it to be normal that we say I love you and give hugs and kisses, pray together out loud before meals and over booboos, and even sing the Doxology; normal that your dad and I talk about our days, tease and laugh and sing and dance, that we read so much, and listen to the radio in the car, instead of annoying children’s music to keep you assuaged.

I want it to be normal that if you disobey, you get in trouble. I want it to be normal that after you apologize, we make amends.

But you know what? All of these things take work. Even the ones that seem easy. They’re not. They take time and attention and consistency and, quite honestly, they wear me out.

A lot of the time.

Especially the discipline part.

But somehow I know that being deliberate is worth it, not taking the easy way out simply because it’s easy is worth it, making normal normal is worth it.

That’s what I wanted to tell you this week.

Even in your mundane life routines, girls, choose the harder option that’s better for the long run. It’s much too easy to fall into mindless habits, especially when you’re busy.

Remember how we use cloth napkins? We also normally wash dishes for big group gatherings—even potluck-sized gatherings. We use real plates and real silverware and real glasses and coffee mugs. And we don’t have a dishwasher.

But when I was buying groceries for your birthday party last weekend, I grabbed two packs of paper plates and a large pack of white paper napkins. Just in case we needed them, I thought. I set the plates out for the party and then left them out the rest of the weekend, since we had a house full of company to celebrate with us. Having paper products throughout the weekend made life a million times easier, it seemed, and even so, your grandmother washed dishes quite a few times to help out!

Still, here’s my point. Over the next two days of leftovers and takeout barbecue, all the plates got used. Both packs. And the paper napkins sitting on the table? Well, I restocked them twice, and then for the last few days, we’ve continued using them, even though the company is gone and it’s back to just the four of us at home. Because the napkins are on the table. That’s the only reason. Easy to grab.

I’ve been using them instead of the cloth napkins to wipe up the mushed banana, to catch the sweat from my glass, to wipe the marker off of your little whiteboard.

When you spilled water on the table yesterday and I grabbed the paper napkins to soak it up, I realized that even for me, with my love of cloth napkins and real dishes, and a closet of rags to be used for these exact purposes: It’s just too easy to grab the disposable thing, when the disposable thing is right there.

It’s harder to wash the dishes by hand than toss out the paper plates.

It’s harder to make the pizza instead of order the pizza. (Maybe not harder, actually, if children aren’t hanging off your pant legs. I wouldn’t know.)

It’s harder to invite people in to a usually messy home than meet at a restaurant, hardest yet to invite them in and treat it as normal, a non-special event.

It’s harder to provide creative activities for you, read books to you, cuddle with you and tickle you and play the ridiculously boring, run-in-circles, “Ploops and Pleeps” game you made up, than to just pull up Amazon and turn on an episode of Diego.

It’s harder to enforce discipline, to apologize, to forgive.

It’s so easy to do… the easy thing. The disposable thing. The fast, multi-tasking thing. The least amount of sacrifice thing. The squeeze the most out of every day thing.

But I hope that’s not your default, girls. Go for hard instead. Invite the friends for dinner.

Use the cloth napkins.


Your Momma