Memos from the Middle

Smack-Dab in the Middle of Living

Dirty Knees: A Tribute to Grandmothers

My mother-in-law, one of my favorite people on Earth (yes, it’s possible, you cynics), lost her grandmother over a week ago. I love my own grandma more than words can express, and I tear up whenever I begin to think about her not being here to give me some advice, recipe, or story from years gone by to enhance my own living experience. To immortalize wonderful matriarchs, I’ve decided to write a few tributes based on my own experiences with my grandma. Here’s the first:

Lovely Picture (from

As a little girl, I spent the summers in Mississippi with my grandmother. Even now, I can remember the heat and how the sweat seemed to sit stubbornly on my face instead of roll lazily down like it did in Chicago. The only time my grandmother turned on the air conditioning was when “company” came over, and apparently, my brother and I were not company. The one moment of relief came at bath time. The water was warm but much cooler than room temperature, and I would linger as long as I could before my grandmother would scold my idleness from the kitchen. Inevitably, though, before I could rise to dry off, my grandmother would burst through the door, scrub brush and extra soap in hand, to scour my knees. “You can’t go through life with dirty knees,” she would say. I wondered where these people with dirty knees lived, for I had never seen any, but I refused to ask, fearing the wrath of my father (even from over 800 miles away) if I “even thought about getting smart” with his mother. I opted instead for “Grandma, it’s not dirt. I just have dark knees,” but she scrubbed on anyway until my knees were red and raw.

Scrub Brush (

I’m a mom now, and I totally get how unbecoming a pair of dirty knees can really be. My girls wear navy blue uniforms to school, and as pre-Kers, they spend a lot of time on the floor for circle time, playing with trucks, and duck-duck-goose. The knees on those pants are turning pale blue to white, and I can’t stand it. My grandmother says, “You may be poor, but you don’t have to look it.” I don’t care how clean, well-behaved, or smart your kids may be, if the knees on their pants are three shades lighter than the pants themselves, people tend to regard them and you as worthy of pity. If you happen to pick up your kids from school wearing your business suit, you look like a selfish, child abuser more concerned with your own appearance than theirs. In other words, you can’t win with dirty knees. I have spent a small fortune on color stay detergents, color safe bleaches, and fade resistant kids clothing. Nothing has worked besides buying ten pair of pants per child.

I have even seen dirty knees on teens and twenty-somethings walking through the mall or sharing a Megabus journey with me. They are wearing jeans that, in the words of old folks, could “probably stand up on their own.” I can’t believe how dirty the knees on these pants are! What could they possibly be doing to get the knees on jeans so filthy? Where are these coal mines in Chicago? Are teens still making mud pies after the rain? A friend of mine even said that she sometimes gets teens in for job interviews wearing these pants! Are you kidding me?

I know that knee dirt may seem quite insignificant in the overall scheme of life, but I think (besides having a general distaste for filthy joints) my grandmother was trying to ensure that I understood that the little things really matter. Who would have hired me to teach their kids if I showed up to an interview with dirty knees? Would I allow a doctor with dirty knees to operate on me? I don’t care how many degrees she has, if she can’t even take the time to ensure that her knees are clean, she can’t work on me!

Every now and then, when I am feeling brave and decide to wear a shorter skirt, I get compliments on my legs. Surely, part of the reason why is because my knees are clean. Thanks, Grandma, for instilling in me pride in the appearance of my lower extremities!

Feeling like you need to scrub some knees? Try this! (

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