How not to start a morning: Get up at 5:30 a.m. and look out the window; notice that the giant amount of snow that fell two days ago is still there. Head for the bathroom and turn on the faucet to get water to rub sleep from eyes. After a few seconds, notice there’s no water. Take a moment to let this sink in.
Check other faucets in the house. Although groggy, learn that none are working. Kick husband out of bed. Explain the situation. Watch him bolt into the kitchen and start filling up glasses of water from the water dispenser in the refrigerator. Remind him that there’s plenty of freshly fallen snow outside that can be melted and used when water is needed.
Make the rounds of other faucets. Learn that cold water is capable of running in all of them. Tell husband to stand down. Collect a few buckets of snow from outside, just in case. Message neighbors on WhatsApp to see if they’re similarly afflicted (four of them are). Wonder what to do next.
Luckily, electricity and heat are working. Coffee can be made, cooking can be accomplished. Husband goes online to search for solutions and spends an inordinate amount of time on hold trying to reach the water heater manufacturer’s help line while trying to thaw out the water heater with a hair dryer.
Gets through, is told in no uncertain terms to desist from using the hair dryer by tech support, who immediately email bizarrely detailed (but still cryptic) instructions on unfreezing the unit’s heat exchanger to his phone while he’s still on the line. Husband follows these steps, which don’t work.
Go through usual routine of lifting weights and doing yoga/Pilates/stretches for a half-hour (dog walk is suspended for the day, thanks to single-digit temperatures, as is bike riding).
Heat a pot of water on the gas stove and, along with a bar of soap and washcloth, head back to aforementioned bathroom to clean up as much as possible. Pile on three layers of clothes to deal with CenterPoint Energy’s plea to keep household temperatures around 60 degrees to conserve natural gas.
Consult with neighbors on next step. A plan emerges to contact the plumbing company that installed the pocket neighborhood’s tankless water heaters around 18 months previously. Get warned that there’s a wait list. Somehow jump the line and get a plumber’s services by mid-afternoon.
Two houses soon see their hot water restored; apparently a blow torch is involved. Others are told their heater is frozen, and maybe putting a space heater near the water heater will help. Nobody much likes this idea and opt to wait until the heaters unfreeze on their own. One of the restored houses loses its hot water within an hour.
Since Netflix and bourbon are still available, it becomes evident that the situation isn’t all that drastic. The only difficulty is figuring out how to wash my hair without sticking my head under a cold-water faucet. So I consult with my friend and fellow book club member Claudia Utley.
“My mother would tell us about the tiny room under the roof she and her best friend shared as students,” she says. “This would have been in the mid to late 1950s. She was studying in Bonn, the capital of West Germany at the time. (Berlin became the capital of Germany in 1989 after the reunification.) “The room had a toilet and a sink, but no bathtub—nobody had showers at that time—and no hot water. So she and her roommate heated water on a hot plate and then took turns leaning over the sink while they used tea cups to pour the hot water over each other’s heads.” So I modified Claudia’s mother’s ingenuity by toting a pot of very hot water into my shower, bending over and, using a sponge, soaked my hair, scrubbed with shampoo, used the sponge again to rinse, wrapped my head in a towel, dumped the remaining pot water down the drain, and completed my bare-bones pandemic toilette.
If this is the worst I have to endure during these troubled times, it’s inspiring to take comfort from another story from Claudia: “I often wish I could talk to my maternal grandmother (born in 1908 and long dead) about how she handled the wars, especially World War II.
“The family lived in Dortmund, the industrial heartland of Germany, home to the large coal and steel industry. Because those materials played a key role for the production of artillery and weaponry, the area was heavily bombed as soon as the air strikes started and mass evacuations ensued.
“Her husband was fighting in the trenches, she had three small children, bombs were falling daily, food and amenities of comfort—running water, electricity, heat—were scarce, and people were terrified of mortal dangers every day. Her eldest daughter was evacuated, alone, at age 8 or 9, to strangers in the southern part of Germany. She and the younger children followed more than a year later.
“They returned to their apartment in Dortmund after the surrender and started to rebuild their lives. My grandfather was fighting in the war the whole time. He returned from being a British POW in 1946.
“One day, my grandmother instructed her eldest daughter to start cooking dinner because her father was coming home that day. A few hours later, he walked up the street, released from the British prisoner-of-war camp. There had been no communication whatsoever about this release.
“How did she know? What gave her hope and endurance? How did she make do? How did she ward off despair?
“Here, we’re complaining about the pandemic, and yes, it’s a severe trial. But we’re also lacking some perspective, thanks to decades of peace. I am not complaining. But I think older generations who lived through national or global trauma could offer some wise counsel.” Snow and showers don’t sound like such a big deal now, do they?
Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.