Now that spring is here (or so the weather forecasters have rushed to assure us), I feel I can finally look back and laugh.
Unlike the memorably cold winter of 2013-14, when pipes froze and burst open in all sorts of unexpected places in my 100-plus-year-old house, this winter saw a different kind of plumbing emergency. Stuff was oozing out of the drain in my basement. I wanted it fixed. Now.
The plumber showed up with a snake, but left with bad news: he was pulling clay back out of the sewer pipe. It was broken, far out by the road. Oh, and he couldn’t fix it. The snaking had bought some time, but our household would have to conserve water until we could find someone able to fix such a mess in February. The five-foot-tall snowbanks over the pipes were going to be an issue.
I listed several reasons why that wouldn’t work. Seven people lived in the house, I told him. Conserving water could only go so far. Surely, there was something he could do. I might have been a little dense in my panic.
The plumber was a nice guy and patiently agreed with me that this would be an inconvenience, but the issue was out of his skill set. My husband made a few inquiries and discovered a knight in shining armor who was able to pull together the right people for us to get the issue fixed. It was, however, going to take some time.
Thus began our weeks of conserving water as though we lived in an off-grid cabin, right in the middle of Duluth. Advice on how to cope with our sudden living situation came in from all sides. Shower at the gym. If you don’t belong to a gym, ask a neighbor if you can use their shower. Buy dry shampoo. Go to the laundromat. Buy disposable plates and cups. Use hand sanitizing gel.
The big question, of course, was the toilets. We couldn’t be flushing them all willy-nilly. Should we schedule bathroom breaks for when we left the house? Would our local fast food joint notice if we kept showing up to use their bathroom? Gnashing teeth over 2013’s frozen water pipes suddenly seemed quaint.
In the end, we got ourselves into a groove and managed without too much drama — once we were done with the initial three-day self-pity party, anyway. Not that we didn’t experience hiccups.
One teenager discovered that paper plates had a plastic coating that leached into the food when microwaved. Another consistently forgot about the “don’t flush unless you have to” rule, a howl of frustration wafting from the bathroom immediately after the sound of rushing water. I would have been proud in any other circumstances, given how much work it took to instill the habit in my children when they were young.
There were small victories, too. I realized I’d been drying out my skin by over-washing my hands and vowed to be more thoughtful about my skin health. One of the kids discovered that in a pinch they could make scrambled eggs in the microwave. We all learned to be more thoughtful of our water consumption, a habit that I notice carried over even after the pipe was fixed and our lives returned to normal.
Though, maybe the idea that I can laugh about it now was optimistic. Even safely on the other end, all construction completed, it feels like it was a long slog. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go rinse my lunch plate and appreciate how little I have to think about where the water is going.
Kathleen Murphy is a freelance journalist and frequent contributor to Duluth.com magazine.