“It is a truth universally acknowledged…”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged…

So begins Jane Austen’s divine novel “Pride and Prejudice.” Austen’s satiric pen turns like a double-edged knife toward the reader and the characters in her novel. Let’s try that tactic: It’s a truth universally acknowledged, in the U.S. of 2012, that all houses, forever forward and aft, sport white goddesses reposing in their basements.

     Segue back to Charleston, South Carolina of the 1950s. I rush in from school, the screen door slams behind me. My mother stands at the sink. Above her rises a 14-foot ceiling, deep with shadows and cobwebs. She is washing clothes–my school uniforms, socks, night gowns, my father’s heavy khaki uniforms, her own cotton house dresses, my sister’s play clothes.

     Standing at a deep window well I stare out to a cobblestone parking yard. We live in the Old Citadel, built a hundred years ago to house cadets in a military college. Behind me, now, my mother is ironing the uniforms which she has starched and hung in the courtyard on a metal and rope contraption that looks like an upside down umbrella. She has sprinkled the stiff trousers and shirts with water, then rolled them into balls and let them sit. Once moisture has softened the hard starched khaki, she can manage to smooth them with her iron. If steam irons have been invented, we don’t have one. Even as a girl in third grade, I understood that my mother worked very hard.

     There was no white goddess in our basement. We had no basement. I had not yet met that era’s version of a washing machine, and dryers meant the contraption she set up outside, letting the sun and wind do the work.

     I’ve often thought of her as a pioneer housewife. Partly because she came from North Dakota and read to us from the “Laura and Mary” books–“Little House on the Prairie,” etc. But also because her strength and resilience supported a physically demanding life. She did not have to cut wood for a stove–we had a gas range. But she did almost everything else “by hand,” except bake bread. Though she was only a mediocre cook, we never went hungry. She sent me and my sister to walk across Marion Square with nickles and dimes clutched in our pockets. We bought loaves of bread, and bags of tapioca for puddings at a little grocer. The Mars bars tantalized. Sometimes we bought milk in a bottle, but most of the time, these clinking sweating dames were delivered by a man driving a horse and wagon. Later he acquired a truck. We had one car. My mother didn’t learn to drive until I had graduated from college.

     All this goes to say that truths “universally acknowledged” fly away with the wind. Times are changing all around us. I’m often besieged by thoughts of how to lower energy use. I’m stymied by this current drought, quite aware that by watering my trees (from the boulevard ash all the way to the backyard white pine and spruce), I’m using a precious, dwindling resource. What will happen to my beloved trees when the Mississippi runs so low, water can’t be pumped to supply the Cities? What, ultimately, will happen to us if we have to live with one bucket of water per person, per day? Images of North African nomads flit through my mind. The women are clothed in layers of long flowing garments. Their faces are mostly covered. Sand stings. Bodies need protection from hot winds. The truth “universally acknowledged” that Minnesota with its 10,000 lakes will never run out of water, may one day crumble to dust.

     For now, I conserve this way: I use and reuse and reuse water in the sink. First to wash hands, then catching the runoff in a dish, to swipe left-over food off plates after a meal, finally to clean cat-food cans before recycling them. Several years ago, I did an internet search on “grey water” usage–the recycling of rinse water and shower water for irrigating backyard lawns, trees, gardens. Several U.S. states allow this. Minnesota not yet. I tried inserting a proposal for grey water into the DFL platform, but met resistance from plumbers’ unions. Plumbers would need to be retrained. “It is a truth universally acknowledged…”

     I cut down on energy use: raising the blinds high for “natural” light, using long-lasting and minimal energy-use halogen bulbs, turning off all the way every computer once it’s not being used. Putting TVs on power strips and turning them off all the way. Making a deal with my husband that if he completely unplugs the myriad “chargers” for his hand-helds, I won’t run the outside water when he’s exercising in the basement. Sensitive ears, that man.

     I cook in bulk. I keep the freezer totally filled with frozen leftovers. In deep cold, we turn the heat down to 62, early in the evening, and raise it to 68 late in the morning. No, we don’t wear wool against the skin, but we wear warm night-clothes, and, my one decadent indulgence, I use an electric blanket. I figure it’s cheaper to heat one bed than a whole house. Recently we received an approval rating from Xcel Energy: we used 12% less energy than our neighbors. It’s because we have no air conditioning. Fans will do.

     And our dryer? The second of our two white basement goddesses? I dry my “wash ‘n’ wear” clothes maybe 3 minutes, then hang them on the line. Anything else–towers, sheets, napkins, socks, washcloths, nightgowns–dry on a line in the basement. The husband has to have anything that will touch hi sensitive skin fluffed in the dryer. Hmmm! I wonder how he managed as a kid. No dryers then. “It is a truth universally acknowledged…”

  1. Anonymous

    Margot, I’m so impressed by your care for water! This morning as I hung my sheets outside to dry, I told Lou about your practices. I, too, hang most of my laundry (outside or in the basement) but not towels. Maybe I will try it. We didn’t have a drier when I was a child, and Lou didn’t either, so we might be able to put up with scratchy things. Keep me posted about grey water. It’s the future.
    Barb P

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