Archive for Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Repairs send household into pioneer era

April 16, 2008


I've developed a new appreciation for the trials of my pioneer foremothers, even if my own compromised situation is a long way from replicating theirs. Contractors working in our basement removed our hot water heater and furnace last week. Then, intermittent wet weather extended a three-day project into an ordeal of indefinite duration.

Since then, I've had to navigate a kitchen that has no running hot water. I was indulging in self-pity on this point, as I heated water in a teakettle to wash dishes, when it occurred to me that this was standard procedure in many American kitchens not so long ago. Certainly, pioneer women had to heat their own water after drawing it from a well or cistern. Tap water and the hot water heater also were missing from many farmhouses and modest homes in the early 20th century.

I quickly decided that I didn't have it as bad as folks from earlier generations, particularly since I could drive to a restaurant instead of dirtying dishes. I also noted with satisfaction that I will live my entire life without having to snatch a chicken out of the yard and wring its neck in order to have dinner.

The self-pity begins to return, however, when I endure a cold shower or look nervously at the few clean clothes that remain in the closet. The contractors made a clean sweep of all the basement appliances, and also removed the washer and dryer. In a moment of panic, I envisioned myself reduced to wearing some threadbare fashion nightmare from the early '90s that missed the trip to Goodwill. Then, I remembered that, unlike my foremothers, the wonders of the Laundromat will allow me to acquire clean clothes without beating my laundry on a rock.

Without the furnace, we've been feeding the woodstove, much like our ancestors would have. As the temperatures continued to dip into the 30s last weekend, with an overnight low of below freezing forecast for Sunday, we worried about the fate of our peach and apple trees, whose buds were already formed. Of particular concern were the peach trees, which were close to blossoming.

While we expect to lose a fruit crop to a late freeze every three or four years, we lost everything - peaches, apples, cherries - last spring and were looking forward to picking our own fruit again. It seemed so unfair, as I walked through the backyard Sunday afternoon and touched the plump little buds that dotted the branches of the peach trees, to think they might not have the opportunity to bloom.

I realized that for the folks who farmed on our property a hundred years ago, trees were probably their primary, if not their only, source of fruit. They would have canned much of what they picked, in order to have fruit throughout the year, and probably would have reserved their grocery dollars for staples like sugar, which they couldn't produce themselves. A late freeze two years in a row probably had a direct impact on their diet.

We may not know the fate of this year's fruit crop immediately, but no matter the result, I'll be a bit more stoic than I might have otherwise. Whatever disappointment I might feel will be forgotten as soon as I feel the gratitude wash over me with my first hot shower in a long while.

- When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.


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