After our return home from the annual Thanksgiving visit with our relatives to the South, my oldest son announced that only cold water was coming out of the kitchen faucet. I blithely assured him that he just needed to let the water run, as it was freezing outside, and all the cold water needed to run through the pipes before the hot could come out. Then I went on bustling about, attending to unpacking, sorting mail, and keeping toddlers out of trouble. Five minutes later, I passed through the kitchen on my way to the laundry room and saw my oldest son still standing at the sink with one finger in the running water. He gave me a glum look. “Mom, there’s NO hot water in these pipes!”
Hmmm…. Now my brain kicked into gear. “Did you check to see if anyone flipped the switch, sweetie?” (Our trailer has a glowing red switch to turn off the water heater when we’re away — conveniently located in plain sight at toddler-height on the wall of the laundry room.) Son #1 shook his head, and I took a few steps toward the laundry room. He was right. The switch was on. I stepped into the utility closet and squeezed into the back corner behind the winter coats to get to the water heater. It felt cool to the touch. Oh, dear. The manual lay on top of the heater, so I flipped through it to see if there was some kind of reset button I could push. Next to a diagram of the innards of the water heater was a paragraph that read something like this:
ALWAYS SHUT OFF POWER SUPPLY TO HEATER BEFORE ATTEMPTING ANY REPAIRS. With power supply disconnected, use Phillips head screwdriver to remove cover from access panel on side of heater, TAKING CARE NOT TO TOUCH ANY METAL PORTIONS OF THE INTERIOR PANEL WITH THE SCREWDRIVER. [Side note: Umm... the entire heater is metal, thank you very much.] With cover removed, locate white, red, and yellow wiring AND DO NOT TOUCH UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. Locate recessed red reset toggle switch behind wiring and use narrow wooden dowel to depress switch, TAKING CARE NOT TO TOUCH THE SWITCH WITH ANY METAL OBJECT OR FINGERS. After depressing switch, replace panel cover, MAKING SURE YOU DO NOT DISTURB ANY WIRING IN THE PROCESS. Restore power supply to heater WITH CAUTION, then step back and wait until you hear the element turn on to begin the heating process. If element does not turn on, call a repairman, and DO NOT ATTEMPT ANY REPAIRS YOURSELF.
Okay, so that’s my paranoid rendition of what the instructions sounded like — but it’s pretty close. There was no way I was going into what sounded like Bomb Disarmament for Dummies, so I skipped to the last step and called our handy-dandy landlord, who seems to be able to fix anything just by looking at it quizzically. He took one look at the cold tank and announced, “It’s dead. Sorry. It’s ten years old. It was time for it to go.”
Well, that was that. There’d be no hot water that night or most of the next day. We piled all the dirty dishes into the sink and filled it with cold, soapy water. There’s nothing quite so icky as the feeling of slimy dinner dishes in cold water. But it couldn’t be helped, so we just piled ‘em in both sides and left ‘em to soak. The children were absolutely thrilled to skip their bath that night–not one of our children likes taking a bath in the wintertime– and I was actually delighted to skip the wrestling match and let them climb into clean pajamas and snuggle into their beds. I felt so bad for our landlord, who would have to take a day off his own work to get our hot water supply back. I washed my face with cold water (brrrrr!) and went to bed hoping the new water heater installation would be quick, easy, and painless.
Some dreams don’t come true. After removing the decrepit old water heater, our landlord discovered that it had been leaking into the surrounding flooring. A light bulb came on in my head as I recalled having to move three cardboard boxes of books that we’d found wet in the utility closet. At the time, we thought a child had spilled water in the closet and just didn’t want to ‘fess up. But, nope, the culprit was the old water heater. In fact, not only had it eaten up our boxes (and several books), but it had destroyed part of the linoleum and begun to eat away at the plywood subfloor beneath. Oh, it wasn’t pretty. It was one of those “simple” jobs that keeps getting more complicated as you go on…and on, and on…
Did I mention that the water had to be turned off all day? We ate off paper plates for breakfast and lunch and reminded little people not to flush. Our sweet landlady invited us all to supper, and we ended up staying and visiting until about 9:30 that night. By the time we got home, our landlord was still in the utility closet with his helper, replacing the subflooring. But it wasn’t long before everything was back in place, and–bonus of bonuses–he’d installed a larger hot water heater! This would mean we could run two baths and do the dishes at night! He warned me not to run the hot water until the glue had dried on the pipe fittings, so I shut my eyes and walked past the sink pile yet again. I looked forward to loading the dishwasher in the morning — and putting filthy children into hot baths the next evening!
The first thing my oldest son did in the morning was turn on the hot water in the kitchen. “It’s really hot, Mom!” he grinned as steam began rising from the slimy sink pile. Ahh… simple pleasures. We gleefully opened the dishwasher to prepare for loading, and I flipped on our countertop tea kettle to boil some water for my morning cup of tea. And that’s when the second lightbulb went on in my head.
I suddenly recalled all the Little House on the Prairie stories and all my grandma’s stories about doing dishes and laundry during the Great Depression. I smacked my forehead, staring into the sinkful of dirty dishes. My son looked startled and asked me what was the matter. I pointed at the kettle and said, “We could have done all the dishes!” He looked puzzled. I explained that we’d had hot water at our fingertips the entire time — I just couldn’t see it for looking. He shot up an eyebrow and shook his head, wondering if his mother’s sanity had indeed finally departed. I started giggling and pulled out both sink drains, watching the chilly, slimy water gurgle down the drain. Then I showed him how simple it would have been to boil a kettle of water and pour it into the sink, adding some cold water to prevent scalding, then wash the dishes by hand with dish soap. His mouth formed a large “O” as his light bulb went on, too. “Mom! That’s how Laura Ingalls and her family took baths, too! Remember? They boiled water on the wood stove, then put it into a wooden tub!” Now we were running on all burners. It was great.
So I started looking at everything around the house differently. What if I had to do without_____? (Fill in the blank — electricity, central heat and air, an outdoor garbage can). Then I began remembering how much I’ve forgotten — or have taken for granted in recent years. Like having an outdoor burn pile for the paper trash and other combustibles. Like using vinegar and water to clean windows and cut grease (instead of buying that fancy degreaser stuff). Like putting table scraps in a compost pile instead of chucking them in the trash. And I’m realizing that it’s all too easy to forget things when we are comfortable and “rich.” Yet how much we lose when we let go of these do-it-yourself skills. I’m reminded of the old Depression Era adage:
Use it up, wear it out,
Make it do, or do without.
I really want to start applying this good advice on a daily basis as we look for more ways to save, be frugal, make do with what we have, and get rid of what we don’t need. It is so freeing to stop depending on “convenience” — but it does mean we need to relearn some old skills that we’ve lost or forgotten. It’s fun to start looking around with new eyes!
And the first thing I thought of was the leftover sticky tile I had after I’d finished the children’s bathroom. I’ve still got about 40 square feet left. Since our landlord had to rip out the ruined linoleum, my utility room floor is screaming for sticky tile! When I’m feeling very motivated (and when I have a couple of hours free), I’m going to pull out all the storage boxes and the dresser and “tile” the closet floor. I’d never planned to bother with it, as it’s not a floor you’d normally see, but I’m so glad now that I bought more than enough vinyl tile for the kitchen and bath. Providential!
And this isn’t the first time that a flooring crisis has resulted in an unexpected blessing. Next time I’ll share the thrilling adventures of Mr. Rat and the Nighttime Visit! Until then, I’ll be enjoying my dishwasher and feeling thankful for hot showers.