Plumbing

Janet Bell

Copyright 2001 by Janet Bell  

Photo of a chamber pot.

For the past few years I've enjoyed telling the stories of my youth to my now grown children. They in turn, have been telling me, "Mom, get that stuff written down before you kick  the bucket." I decided I'd acquiesce to their wishes and jot  down a few of my tales. It is really turning out to be all fun and  no work on my part. The little girl that has been hidden in me 
for over half a century just takes over. The words flow down to  my pen as she relives the events and brings back to life  people she loved or feared. So, if my stories seem to be written by a child, they are! 

It was my first day in nursery school. I'd only been at Lincoln School once before when my sister was enrolled in kindergarten there. She was now in 1st grade. My Mother and I walked to school together where we stood in line to meet my teacher. When Mom left she reminded me to wait for her after school as she was going to attend a PTA meeting being held in the lower level (basement) and we'd walk home together. She was excited about that meeting.

I loved every minute of school. There were so many toys to play with, other kids my age to laugh with, and a pretty teacher who looked and smelled so clean. I liked her for that and for how she handled one of my schoolmates, a very difficult little girl. This girl, all dressed up in a frilly, ruffled, dress had long black hair that just stood out in ringlets and curls around her face. She did nothing but whine, cry and stomp her feet when she didn't get the toy she wanted. It seemed she always wanted the toy someone else was having fun with. Well, teacher stood the little girl on a stool and called the rest of us to gather around her.  She unrapped a stick of gum and gave it to the girl to chew.  I'm sure the rest of the kids were with me in thinking that maybe our behavior had been wrong because we sure weren't getting a reward.  But those thoughts soon gave way to giggles from us and tears from the little girl as teacher held out her hand and waited for the girl to put her gum in it.  Teacher took the gum and pushed it down until it was stuck to the girl's nose.  She was then told not to make one more sound or speak one more word because tape acreoos the mouth was the next step.  She had to wear the gum the rest of the afternoon.  We had a cool teacher.

After school, several moms were waiting at the door for their kids, leaving six or seven of us waiting.  One by one other mothers showed up - no one seemed to know where mine was.  I waited and I waited.  Several times I kneeled down to see if I could see her in the basement where a few women were still talking.  Mom wasn't in sight, but then I just thought she was standing where I couldn't catch sight of her.  After a long while, the last women came out leaving one to lock the door.  When I told her she was
locking the door and my Mother was still inside, she said that she knew who my Mother was and that she'd left even before the meeting got started.  What?  I just couldn't believe it.

I remember leaving the school grounds and cutting across the street at an angle. I walked past the tail end of the hills that wound around to the ones behind Heggie's Manufacturing Company, alongside a large fenced-in field that was part of Heggie's playground, and along the baseball field, the bleachers, and the gate to the playground. Once inside the playground, it was circle around the park office, go past the pavilion, the little kid's play area, the sand boxes, the big kid's play area, the little wading pool, the equipment shed and out the back gate.

So far -- so good.

Next, I walked down the alley to the highway, around the stonewall, past the little house and Heggie's offices.

I was getting closer. I continued down the dirt path and past the field with the hole in the fence. Finally, I was home.

I was home and I was MAD!!

I stormed into our kitchen demanding to know why my Mother had gone off and left me. Boy! Did she cut me down to size. Mom seldom got mad and shouted - she just knew how to hit below the belt. She politely informed me that she didn't like the other mothers at the meeting so she left. And, further, if I couldn't find my own way home from someplace, I had no business being there to begin with. So, just maybe I wouldn't be going to school anymore. No shouting - no scolding - just flat out I wasn't going. I was just sick. My first day would be my last day.  I loved that school and I wanted to keep going.  How I pleaded.  I could get home myself. Didn't I just do it?  It's just that I expected her and I was worried when she didn't show up.  Finally, she said, "O.K.  Go there, but don't expect me to be taking you and bringing you home like a baby."  Oh!  What a relief.  It just flooded over me.  I was still going to school.

The next two years during kindergarten and first grade are so memorable, not just for school but also for the fun I had after school. The bell would ring and I'd fly out of there to get to the park. A young woman with the bluest eyes, long brown hair and a smile that never left her face, was hired as a counselor by the park district to work with the pre-kindergarten children. I'd get there just as the "little" kids were leaving so that this young lady and I had thirty to forty-five minutes together before she left.

She usually had a little snack that we'd share, and then we'd color or make a little craft. All the time we were doing stuff like that I'd be rattling on about my day at school. She would just listen and smile, occasionally making some comment. She made me feel so special. When it neared the time for her to leave I always got to help clean up the pavilion and pack away her supplies. I liked being near her because she smelled so nice and was always so clean. I wanted to be just like her and my teachers, but first things first. I realized that to be like them, I'd have to bathe more often.

* * * * *

It was really difficult to get a good bath at our house. Drinking water we got at an outside pump located in the back yard of a house two doors away. All other water we got from our cistern. A cistern is a block, walled in area in a basement. The wall was far enough away from the ceiling so that a bucket could be lifted over and filled. The water was rainwater that flowed into the cistern from a downspout. When it was full, you turned the downspout and the water would flow out onto the drive. I was probably about five when Dad hooked up a hand pump by our kitchen sink. Later, he also put one by the washing machine in the basement.  Mom no longer had to step on a stool to reach over the wall with her pail and then tote it upstairs.  Now, she had the luxury of just priming the pump, pumping the handle, and water would flow into the sink.  It was not only easier for her, but now we had the luxury of washing whenever we wanted to.  Baths were still weekly to bi-monthly affairs, but I could stand on a chair anytime I wanted to and wash my face, hands and legs in the kitchen sink.  This is called a sponge bath.  I washed a lot but I just knew those clean ladies had to be doing more.  They were probably taking whole baths at least two or three times a week.  

* * * * *

I was often home alone because for a couple of years Mom and Dad cleaned Heggie's office building every night for $2.00 a week. It was a two-storied structure with lots of rooms and two or three stairways. My sister and I had a choice: we could go with them or stay at home. When I stayed alone I would fill the sink, scoop out a pan-full of water, heat it on the stove and then pour it into the sink again. I'd just sit there in luxury taking an all-over bath in the kitchen sink. The first time I lit the stove I left the gas jet on too long before putting a match to it.   I learned real quickly to light it as soon as the jet was turned on.  I took my bath and then went to my parents' room to look in the mirror at how clean I was.  Holy smokes!!  My hair was singed.   I cut off the singed parts hoping no one would notice.  They didn't, but then I was always having to snip out chunks of hair where gum or burrs had stuck.

One night my folks finished up at the office early and caught me in the sink. Mom was beside herself with grief. How on Earth could she ever wash our dishes in there again when I was sitting in it with my bare duppa? Then she decided she could scrub it down but would have to rewash everything we ate on and all the pans she cooked with because they'd previously been washed in a sink where "Janet sat with her bare duppa."

While Mom washed and I wiped, she and Dad came to a decision. If  I wanted to whole bathe more often, I could, but it couldn't be in the kitchen sink. I'd have to bring up the laundry tub, fill it, empty it and put it away by myself. That put the end to my ridiculous notion of bathing so often. Right? Wrong!

Getting the tub up the basement stairs presented a problem. First I tried tying a rope to the handle and hauling it up. It bumped. It bounced. It got stuck. I tried turning it over, the rope still tied to the handle. That worked better. After my bath, I'd empty the tub by tossing panfulls of water into the sink and wiping what was left with a towel. Getting the tub downstairs was easy. I just had to drag it over to the top step and give it a shove.  From there it was simple to get it over to the washing machine.  I'd just drag it over and heft it up onto the two chairs facing each other where it would be used for rinsing the laundered clothes.

I not only got these baths but also the weekly or bi-monthly ones Mom prepared. I liked those even better. Mom used hotter water and in the winter she'd set the tub on two chairs in front of the potbelly stove. I looked forward to her baths but not to the enemas she'd give us every second month to clean out our insides too.

* * * * *

In the early 1940's, Dad took out the pump and installed a new sink with faucets. Things were looking up, but for now, I had even more problems because of our portable indoor toilet, which my Mother called our "bed chamber."

This was kept in a closet that separated the kitchen form my parent's bedroom, and was nothing but a tall, pot-bellied, white chamber pot with a blue rim about two and a half inches wide. The rim was really quite comfortable and hardly cut at all into our duppas. Unless of course you sat on it too long day dreaming while your sister danced around, twisting her legs together, clutching her crotch, begging you to get done because she had to go so bad.

* * * * *

There's an old saying about how a farm wife should never learn to milk a cow because it would end up being her job if she did. Well, I learned that if you mentioned that the pot was stinking up the whole house, it'd be your job to empty it every morning in the outdoor toilet. I did - and it was. From that day until we moved nine years later, I had to carry that big, stinking thing and empty it. Sometimes if it was too full, Dad would take it. That was because I'd get back to the house with my dress all smelly, purposely making more wash and work for Mom.

The reason I complained in the first place was that the pot was so full of: number one and number two, as my sister and I called it; wee-wee and boom-boom or poop, as my Mom named it, or; piss and sh--, my Daddy's description of its contents. No matter what it was called, it stunk. The pot had sat there for two days getting fuller and fuller and smelling "badder and badder." Mom couldn't and Dad wouldn't empty it into the outhouse because we were having such a blizzard and the snow was too deep to get there. Well, I griped about it once too often, and as I said before, it became my job to empty it for the next nine years.

Of course I didn't start carrying it out until the blizzard had ended and Dad was able to shovel a path to the outhouse, and I didn't know he intended to empty it when it was "too full," like it was then. Consequently, I was scared stiff when I was designated the potty emptying task. Oh, I knew I'd be able to handle it most mornings, but oh glory be, how was I ever going to get it out after the storm? I kept a vigil on the monster. Every time someone came out of the closet, I ran in to see how much higher the contents were. They were getting to the flood stage. Oh, what was I going to do and how was I going to do it?

Ahhh! I got a flash of genius through me. I found just the tool I needed at the back of the cupboard. It had a long handle attached to a little pan like a cup. It was perfect for my job. Next I found a larger pan just right for me to handle if I didn't fill it all the way. Scoop, fill and throw out the back door into the snow. Oh, I was on a roll until the smell associated with disturbing the pot's contents and carrying pans of it through the kitchen penetrated to the bedroom where my parents were.   They came barreling out of there.  They scared me so bad I dropped the pan I was just starting to carry out.  It spilled down my dress, down my stockings, and into and over my shoes onto the floor.  Miracle of all miracles I'm  alive today to tell you about it.

Dad cussed me up one side and down the other. He couldn't turn me on his knee to spank because I was covered with number one and number two, so he grabbed an arm and wholloped my seat - so hard I flew into Mom. Dad's eyes bulged when he saw I'd gotten sh-- on Mom's dress, but poor Mom didn't say "Boo." She didn't even know it. She was just standing there in a trance repeating how her "soup scoop had poop on it." When we realized how it rhymed, Dad and I both burst out laughing. Uh oh! Another lesson.   Don't ever laugh if your Mom is upset that her soup scoop had scooped poop.  If you do, Santa won't be coming the next week.

Santa already wasn't coming for my sister. I don't recall what she'd done to get on Santa's "sh-- list", as Dad called it, but right then, the very minute I laughed and looked into my Mom's eyes, I knew she was going to see that Santa got word to put my name right next to my sister's. She didn't say a word but I knew.

If you got on that list of Santa's, all you got for Christmas was a lump of coal in the stocking you hung on Christmas Eve. The worse part of that was you weren't even allowed to keep it. It'd get thrown into the big, pot bellied, coal-burning stove used to heat the house. Christmas morning not only was our coal burned, but we were told that we'd been so bad and upset Santa so much, that even though it hurt him, he was probably going to have to keep us on his "sh-- list" the next year too. Oh well, maybe next year we'd get to keep the lump of coal.

My biography in a short paragraph. Oh dear. You ask the impossible of a woman who takes three sentences to say, "Hello," but all I can do it try. I was born during the Great Depression that gripped our nation in the 1930's. Age wise, in the minds of many young people, that puts me right up there with Methuselah. For the past forty-seven years I've been happily married to my husband, the light of my life. My greatest accomplishment has been raising five children, every one of whom has turned out to be a source of pride and joy. They in turn have given me six wonderful grandchildren. What else can I say? Life is great.
 

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