I was in a position this past week where I did not have access to hot running water for a few days. The first day was manageable as I was able to avoid any activity that required hot running water. I had a cold wash up in the morning, I didn’t shower and I skipped doing the dishes for the day. However, after waking to a cold morning with no warm relief and watching the dishes piling high in the sink, I began to revert back to a way of life from my childhood.
It was like an automatic response to my environment as I adapted to the cold-water face wash and I turned to boiling water in the biggest pot I could find in the kitchen in order to do the dishes. These activities reminded me of life back home in Attawapiskat. When I was a kid and a young adult back home I basically lived like the pioneers did. We did not have running water, or hot running water for that matter, in our home until 1990. Imagine that, when most of you who are reading this could not imagine life without running water, hot water or a conventional modern toilet, I was living in a world that had none of these luxuries.
Back then, life without running water was completely normal for all of us. Fresh water was collected and stored in our home in a huge barrel. We kept the large blue-plastic 45-gallon barrel in the middle of the house close to the wood stove. The barrel lasted for about a week and in the summer months, when the water ran low, dad and my older brothers fetched fresh water from the rapids west of town with our half-ton truck.
During the wintertime, we used snow machines to head out on to the main channel of the Attawapiskat River to fetch water from a hole in the ice. This river water was used primarily for washing. At the same time, we also collected snow and ice that we melted for drinking water. When winter ushered in freezing temperatures we used our wood stove regularly and the water barrel was placed near the heat to melt any ice and snow.
Mom had a regular morning routine when we were young. She was the first one up and her first task was to put water in the metal pot to get the tea going. Next, she placed a large pot of water on the stovetop to make sure we had fresh warm water to wash in once we rose from our slumber. As we were called out of bed we were directed to the washroom and told to wash up before the water turned cold.
As we ate breakfast, mom was busy warming more water in huge five-gallon metal buckets on the stovetop. This water was used for washing the dishes later in the day and for the loads of laundry mom had to sort through every morning. I remember mom constantly maintaining a steady amount of warm water on the stovetop during the day. It was used for everything from bathing, floor cleaning, laundry and dish washing.
A couple of times a week in the evenings we used a warm pot of water to wash our hair. Hair washing was a team effort. The person washing always needed a family member to pour a pitcher of warm water to rinse out the soapsuds. We also washed regularly by using a cloth in the bathroom to wipe ourselves down. We didn’t have the luxury of a shower or bathtub. When my younger brothers and I were still small, mom washed us in her laundry tub.
Washing and bathing on a daily basis in our home was no small feat. At one point, we lived in a crowded five-bedroom household with two parents, nine children and one grandparent. We all shared one bathroom and the kitchen was basically a mess hall with a steady supply of dirty dishes and utensils that had to be cleaned. The laundry room was a holding room for dirty laundry and it was everything mom could do to keep up with the washing.
I remember assisting my grandmother (Kookoom) Louise in the summer time with her water needs. She called on us regularly to fetch water for her home from a nearby pumping station. We were delighted to have pumping stations constructed in the mid-’80s. Even though I was only 11 years of age, Kookoom thought I was capable enough to haul two large five-gallon buckets of water over my shoulders. She provided me with a yoke for the job. The wooden yoke was a handcrafted tool that my grandfather (Mooshoom) Xavier had fashioned when he was a young man. That yoke was more like a piece of art and it fit well on my shoulders and around my neck. At either end was a short extension where two ropes could be placed to hold two buckets of water. Mooshoom’s yoke made it possible for a little guy like me to haul a big load.
When I think about it, water sure is a necessity all the way around. The fact that I can simply turn a tap and have it delivered to me nice and hot is something I still see as a luxury. I know what it is like to live without these little luxuries in life. It’s all about hard work.