By Sandra Dee Owens
Living without running water for 8 years was the hardest part for me.
In our early 20s my husband and I had bought a small piece of land with a burnt-down house on it. It was cheap and had important features we needed in order to shift from homelessness to first-time property owners. Following the real estate agent through chest-high grass, we carried our two young daughters through the charred remains of a house that was left where it landed.
After surveying the site, we turned our focus to the small, old garage that was untouched by the fire.
Peering in the murky windows, we saw it too was a clean-up site, and stepping back, we surveyed the roofline. Was it sturdy enough for our family to live in while we built a house?
Noting the substantial challenges the property had, we focused instead on what it had to offer.
1. It was cheap.
2. It had a building on it.
3. It had a driveway.
4. There was power to the property.
5. It had deeded rights to a fresh, clean water source.
6. There was a septic system on the property.
This meant we could move onto the property right away, and many of the major infrastructures of a home were already in place. None of these things were plumbed to the garage, however, and being on a rocky hillside, we would not be burying water or septic lines from the house site to the garage. We would be camping in the garage. But, it was temporary.
What we lacked in money, tools, and building experience, we made up for with hope and youthful energy. The kind landowners allowed us two years to pay off the mortgage of $11,000.
We set about emptying and cleaning the garage to move in. Spotting an old, cast iron sink in the weeds, we dragged it up the embankment, and made a rustic wooden stand for it. Our daughters, 2 and 4 at the time, were small enough to bathe in our recycled kitchen sink.
What we had to work with
Unable to fit in the cast iron sink, Bill and I resorted to outdoor showers using an antique enamel pitcher and a kitchen chair.
A couple of times a week, after the girls were fed, read to, sink-bathed, and tucked in their homemade bunk beds (a gift my dad had made with 2×4’s) we hauled more water from the spigot at the burnt-down house site, and heated it on the stove.
Though a lengthy process, our showers were easy enough in summer, combining a simple way to clean up with the stress relieving power of fresh, hot water. But by our fourth winter in the garage, I was having trouble coping with our “temporary” living situation as our building project was moving more slowly than I had expected.
At some point in the house design process, my husband fell in love with traditional joinery timberframing. He was “felled” by the siren of wood (white oak to be specific) and headed down a different building path than where we started.
The original foundation, too damaged by the fire to reuse, had to be removed with a jackhammer. Financial restrictions also meant we would need to build our own foundation forms. We could afford to rent a jackhammer, not an excavator or concrete company.
It was a week before Christmas, and day 2 of a three-day snowstorm with temperatures holding below zero. An arctic wind whipped around the outside of the garage, leaving tall, sloping drifts at the corners.
As hot showers helped temporarily wash away my increasing anxiety about our living situation, I need/wanted them more frequently to relieve my mental distress. What I really needed was a bubble bath, but a pitcher, a chair, and a snowstorm was what I had to work with.
With our largest pots heating on the woodstove, Bill set about mixing hot with a little cold in the pitcher. I push-push-pushed the garage door against the deep snow and went out to shovel a space for the chair. With every dig and toss of the shovel, the wind swirled the feather light snow back in my face, catching my breath in its cold, smoky spray.
I brought out a chair and stomped the snow down in front of it for a standing spot.
Heading inside to undress, I grabbed shampoo and soap, then dashed back out to stand before the chair as Bill drizzled hot water over my head and shoulders. For a few luxurious moments, I closed my eyes and listened to the howl of the storm, and enjoyed the magic of tiny snow crystals landing on their points on my face and skin. Inhaling the beauty of clean, arctic air, I felt tension melting as the sting of hot-hot water met my cold-cold skin.
It was an exhilarating combination and the vivid distraction gave my mind a moment of relief from anxiety. It was a unique bathing experience. But, unwise to linger in such conditions, I quickly added shampoo to my long hair, then soaped my face and body, and waited for a rinse.
With eyes shut tight against soapy sting, I felt the drizzle slow to nothing. “Uh oh, I’m out of water,” Bill said with less horror than he should have.
“What!” I shrieked, sending him scrambling off the chair and inside to mix another pitcher. I
hated him until he came back.
Instinctively, I hopped from foot to stinging foot. My long hair, piled high on my head, began to jiggle stiffly. Something was changing. With time to burn, I reached up and felt the shampoo and soap freezing in the sub-zero air. My hair had stiffened in a cone shape, as the shampoo’s wax (conditioning agents) turned rigid. My soapy coating had transformed to a thin, hard shell. My eyelids had sealed shut behind a tangle of frozen lashes. I felt like a chocolate-dipped creemee!
When Bill returned with the pitcher, the waxes refused to fully remelt. I was covered in a film until the next — and last — outdoor winter shower.
Self-care is family care
The next day, with my stiff, waxy hair stuffed under a winter hat, I drove to a local farm and garden store and ordered a 4-foot long galvanized steel dog-washing tub with slanted sides and handles at either end. It was an extravagance, but I didn’t care.
The tub arrived on Christmas Eve, and placing it on the floor in front of the woodstove, Bill hauled, heated, and filled it for me. I placed the extra extravagant, single red rose I’d bought at the grocery store next to me on the floor, and stepped in.
Though it was a lot of work to haul and heat water, then carry it back out of the garage again, having an indoor bathtub helped me get through the next 4 1/2 years of living in the garage.
It was my mind medicine.