“Stop! What are you doing?”
Startled, I turned around just in time to see Aunt Ann rushing past me to turn off the hot water tap on the kitchen sink. It was the summer of 1965, a day or two after our family (Mom, Dad, and seven kids ranging in age from infant through age 14) moved in with Aunt Ann for a few weeks until the house Mom and Dad had just purchased could be finished.
Ann was only 48 at the time, but to my 12-year-old self she seemed much older—almost ancient, in fact. She was slender with short blond-gray hair and had a no-nonsense, almost severe air about herself. I was more than a little afraid of her because even then I realized that our family brought significant chaos and disruption to Ann’s previously well-ordered and quiet life.
Still, I had no idea why she was so upset about the running water. As I had been taught for several of my younger siblings, I was running the hot tap water over a baby bottle to warm the formula it contained before giving the bottle to my youngest brother.
What I didn’t realize is that Ann’s house was outside the limits of our town’s municipal water system. Looking back, I have a vague recollection that, for whatever reason, it was difficult or impossible to drill wells in that area. The only available alternative was to have potable water delivered by truck on an as-needed basis so it could be pumped into a cistern in the basement of Ann’s house. In hindsight, of course, it is easy to see why every drop of water was precious to Ann and why she was so alarmed at my innocent misuse of water—not to mention that overall water consumption for her household was suddenly multiplied by a factor of 10!
Ann showed me how to put the glass baby bottle, with the cap loosened, in a small saucepan of water to warm on a burner of the kitchen stove. She warned me to set the heat to a low temperature so the formula wouldn’t get too hot and the water wouldn’t boil away and told me I couldn’t leave the stove until I turned the heat off. And, of course, any remaining water was saved for the next bottle-warming or perhaps added to meal-time dishwater. Baths were few and far between that summer and bath water was used several times (presumably from the least dirty person to those who were really stinky!) before it was drained from the tub.
Ann was more of a teacher than she probably realized. She was born and raised on a North Dakota farm in the early part of the 20th century, the eldest of ten (surviving) full and one half sibling, and started her adult life in the midst of the 1930s depression. With that history, she had a bone-deep appreciation for her modest possessions. As our summer at her house progressed, I was eventually allowed to help her with laundry and ironing. She was especially careful of sets of linens, e.g., tablecloth and napkin sets or matched towel sets. She told me it was important to put the most recently laundered pieces at the bottom of the stack so the entire set of linens would wear more-or-less evenly. Without her instruction, I’m doubtful I would realize that even today.
I mentioned early on in this post about Ann’s blond-gray hair and her no-nonsense manner. I didn’t see Ann often between the time we lived with her in 1965 and when I left home in late 1969, but I was privileged to visit with her at several of our biennial family reunions between then and when she passed away in 2005. The blond-gray hair I mentioned at the beginning of this post eventually matured to a steely gray, reflecting the strength of character that enabled her to raise four children in a difficult marriage and survive the subsequent divorce (almost unheard of at the time). In her later years, I appreciated the eye-glint of humor she shared with her younger siblings and her overall grace-filled demeanor. To this day, I am proud to include Ann, her siblings, their mates, and their second, third, and fourth (and maybe more) generations in my family tree.