As a tomboy growing up in Littleton, Colorado in the 1980s, I have countless memories of running through sprinklers on the Slip ‘n Slide, playing water games at the local outdoor swimming pool (with green hair), climbing in the large cottonwood trees along the Highline Canal Trail near my childhood home, cooling off on the covered patio in the evening, experiencing the clockwork afternoon thunderstorms and of course, selling lemonade for ten cents a Dixie cup to any generous soul who decided to stop and support the neighborhood’s young entrepreneurs’ endeavors. At that innocent time, water was simple. With the exception of my biweekly chore of manually moving the sprinkler to water the lawn with our old fashioned ‘hose and sprinkler system’, water was fun! I gave little thought to the natural forces and human ambition that came together to make my lifestyle possible.
Water had a different meaning for my mother and father growing up in western Kansas in the 1950s. The source of water was more transparent where rural families were often directly responsible for their own supply. Windmills, powered by the Great Plains’ perpetually renewable energy resource, were often used to pump well water for household use. A famous family story entails my ambitious two-year-old father climbing to the top of a windmill platform thirty feet above the ground and my grandmother running out of the house wringing her hands as my father looked down at her saying, “Don’t cry Mama!”
The windmill on my mother’s childhood farm was vital for their domestic survival and can still be used today to water the garden and flowerbeds. In the late 1950s, my mother’s father installed a pressurized water system to provide running water from the well into the farmhouse kitchen, replacing a manual hand pump. Water used for dishwashing and other cleaning purposes was simply drained through a pipe alongside the house to water some trees. Use of the restroom entailed a forty-foot walk to the outhouse, camouflaged with flowering shrubs.
An old railroad boxcar next to the windmill served as the washhouse where a tank on top of the boxcar was heated by the sun for evening showers. My grandmother used an old “wringer washer” in the boxcar for laundry. She would change the soapy washing water with each load but to conserve water, used the rinse water over and over. The laundry was hung on a clothesline outside resulting in bedroom sheets that smelled of fresh air and sunshine. It was common for the neighbors to compare the “whiteness” of their white laundry, similar to many neighbors today who silently compare the relative “greenness” of their lawn to others.
These memories will be shared through the generations of my family. While water has always been vital for our survival and lifestyle, the ways in which water is used and perceived can be significantly different depending on age, livelihood and where we live. What are your stories surrounding water as a child? What are your parents and grandparents’ stories?