June 7, 2022 By Mary Ann McKinney

The Obligatory Baths

Flora McCarthy Hartman covered her ears and pulled the curtains even more tightly closed. There it was again, the wailing like a banshee at her gate. She, being daughter of Irish immigrants and inheriting the Irish tendency toward superstition, had been widowed almost a year. When darkness fell and the weather was inclement, the moaning seemed to be even more intense. Flora convinced herself it was her husband’s ghost.

Upon the advice of a trusted friend, Flora decided to move as far away from Nebraska and her haunted house as was possible. At the age of 52 she filed the claim required for acquisition of a homestead in northwestern Colorado. These 640 acres turned out to be devoid of ground water. Having the gift of Blarney, she was able to make a deal with a neighbor who had a stream running through his homesteaded land. “Of course, you may help yourself to the water on my property,” he told her. He also agreed to build a two-room cabin for her. When he presented her with a bill of $1,200 for materials, transportation, and labor Flora took him to court for exorbitant charges. Sad to say, she won the case but lost a friend as well as nearby water from Mr. Cassidy’s stream.

From that time on Flora had to take her buckboard wagon once a week to a water source and fill the barrels she brought along. When she tried taking a shortcut through Mr. Cassidy’s property, he promptly stopped her by accusing her of trespassing. So, her seven-mile trip brought out the miser in Flora. She drew up a set of strict rules for water usage in her home.

Flora’s homestead housed a number of folks each summer, from hired hands to relatives, the youngest being her own ten-year-old son and several nephews. Now all these extra hands also meant more water was needed. Flora was known to have diligently supervised their drinks of water, the dishwashing, the toothbrushing and most of all the weekly baths. Now every soul in her home was required to bathe in the washtub in the same water, and always on Saturday night. The order in which the bathing proceeded was first Flora, then her daughters, followed by the men and boys, the youngest boys being the last. One of those children later reported that the water was more than sludgy by the time he completed his obligatory bath. But kindness prevailed as Flora did add buckets of fresh water from time to time.

Now what does this have to do with my habits regarding water? I grew up in the Southwest where years of drought were occasional but inconvenient. I knew from an early age that water was not to be wasted. Senseless habits of leaving a tap running or long showers enjoyed by younger generations drive me to drink … and I don’t mean water!


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