Thanksgiving: small mercies

A troll lived in our cistern. He moved in shortly after my grandfather built the cistern in our basement so my mother would have soft water during the winter. The troll was short, heavy set, bandy legged, deep set eyes, a permanent scowl and, if he could grab little boys leaning over the edge of the cistern, he’d pull them down into the darkness and eat them.

I was a little boy. The cistern was big. There was no light over it so in peering over the edge all I could see was darkness.

The cistern was necessary because the water from the artesian wells in my hometown of Gimli was so hard that soap curdled in it. During the spring, summer and fall, people got water from rain barrels that collected rain water from the roof of their house. The problem was that when the rain turned to snow, the rain barrels soon ran out of water and, even if they didn’t, they had to be drained since the water would freeze solid.

The cistern held enough water to last until around the end of February. In the last weeks, the water level would fell below the tap. That meant that my mother would send me down the basement–a scary proposition in itself since the basement was not well-lit, smelled of mould and dampness and was full of shadows–to get water. I had to take a pail with a rope on the handle, climb a stool, throw the pail over the wall of the cistern, let it sink into the water, pull it up. That’s when I was at greatest risk. I could throw the pail over the concrete wall easily but I couldn’t lift the pail of water up and over the edge of the wall without leaning into the darkness.

Washday was Saturday, not Monday. I think it was Saturday because my mother wanted my help. My father, before he went out on the lake, would start a fire in the stove made from a forty-five gallon oil drum. It was on its side and was set on metal legs. When the basement had heated up enough to be bearable, we’d cart the baskets of laundry down the wooden stairs. My mother would sort out the clothes. Whites and colours. Then the colours into a little dirty, medium dirty and really dirty.

She had to heat water. That meant pouring it into a copper boiler on the stove. Then dipping the hot water out and pouring it into the General Electric wringer washer. The GE was a miracle. Before she got it, she had to wash clothes by hand. She put in the water, the soap, clothes, then pulled the handle that started the agitator. When she thought the clothes were clean, she stood on one side of the wringer and put them through the rollers. I stood on a chair on the other side and caught the squeezed clothes and dropped them into a galvanized tub filled with cold water. I stirred them around to rinse them, then my mother put them through the wringer again. Usng the wringer was dangerous. Both my mother and my grandmother had their fingers sqaushed. One time,when I was helping my grandmother wash clothes, her fingers got caught in the piece of clothing that was going through the wringer. “Hit the release,” she said urgently. She couldn’t reach it from where she was standing. “Hit it. Hit it.” I did and the rollers opened, the clothing stopped being pulled through.

Lugging and heating water was such a chore that the cleanest clothes went in first, then the next dirtiest pile, then the next. Between washings, we’d haul clothes up the basement stairs to the back porch where I would hand my mother shirts, pajamas, underwear. She’d shake out the clothes, then use wooden clothespins to secure them to the line. In summer it was pleasant. In winter, it was miserable.

The next day, after church, she’d take the laundry off the line and begin ironing.

In winter, the clothes froze solid, the shirts, the long underwear so stiff that they could stand in the corner of the kitchen until they started to thaw. Getting the clothes from the line in thirty degree below weather, often with a wind, was hard work. Once I grew tall enough to reach the line, since I had no sisters, I got assigned to bring in the clothes. I can still hear the squeal and rattle of the clotheslines, see my breath, feel how rigid the clothes were. The clothes, because they were frozen, had to be handled carefully for the could be torn or broken.

My mother often said how grateful she was for her GE washing machine. Hauling water, heating it, taking the clothes to the clothes line was heavy work but compared to washing clothes by hand, it was a miracle.

As I write this, I hear my automatic washing machine, that good and faithful servant, humming in the background. Beside it rests my automatic dryer. Nowadays, washing clothes is easy. It is all done indoors. The water is heated by my electric furnace. Instead of an all day job, it takes only a few minutes to fill the washing machine, put in some soap, and push a button. I’m grateful for the ease of washing my clothes but most of all, I’m grateful I don’t need a cistern. I don’t need to lean over the wall’s edge and wait for a large, gnarled hand to grasp my wrist and pull me down into the water.

One thought on “Thanksgiving: small mercies

  1. When I was very young we lived in the Cariboo Country of northern BC. My mother had an old non-electric washing machine with a hand crank–you would wind it up like a watch, it would run down, you would wind it up again. Hard work but it beat the scrub board! I do miss the amazing smell of clothes (especially sheets and pillow slips) dried outside on the clothes line–there is no fabric softener scent that can come close, no matter how hard they try.

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