You rarely know when you’ve done something for the last time. It’s only after you look back on it and say, that was the last time. Like the last time you went skiing. Or saw your grandmother. Or pinned sheets to a clothesline.
The last time I did that I was living in a mountain cabin west of Denver. It was early December. The girls were hunting ghosts between the sheets I clipped to the rope Frank had strung across the yard. Francie was 7; Betsy, 9.
“Boo!” They hooted, wrapping damp bedding around their heads.
“Boo!” I hooted back. The best part of having kids was playing with them.
Not that my mother played with me. The eldest of six, I was her helper. Before we got a clothes dryer, I stood on the back porch and, with cold-numbed fingers, pinned clothes to a rope attached by pulleys to a solitary oak a hundred feet away. Clip. Clip. Push. Hours later, the rhythm reversed. Un. Clip. Yank. Jeans were stiff and underwear brittle. But the sheets and towels were fluffy, like the ones in my own alpine backyard.
As I had done back East, I breathed warmth into my hands and cupped them to my face. The aroma of clean laundry mingled with the piney west wind. I closed my eyes. Life was good.
Until the next day, when it wasn’t.
“Honey, wake up,” my husband nudged me. “Pipes froze overnight.” A cold front had plunged the temperature below zero. Although we had left the water running, it wasn’t enough. “See if you can thaw them. I got to go plow.”
Plowing was one of his many jobs. So was welding, carpentry, hauling wood—anything that favored autonomy. He called his business Hot and Handy. A hundred, two hundred years ago, he would have been a settler, a trapper, a railroad gandy. He made enough to provide for his family, yet maintain his mountain-man independence.
“I’ll get water. But bring some snow in.”
I knew the drill. Fill pots, cover them, and place them near—but not too near—the woodstove. Dry mountain snow will evaporate if you don’t melt it slowly. Then, set the hair dryer to low and hold it close—but not too close—to the pipes. Otherwise, they could burst.
As I struggled out of my warm bed, Frank kissed my forehead. “I stoked the fire.”
He was sweet like that. As snow layered itself over everything, I watched him start the truck, hitch the plow to it, and carve a path toward the state road.
“Don’t flush the toilets,” I told the girls. They knew the drill, too.
After a few hours, we had about a cup of water, so I gathered more snow. And although we made a game of warming the pipes, water refused to drip from the faucets.
When Frank returned, he took over the tedious process, until water first oozed then gushed—not out of the faucet but through the pipe. “Shit. Grab me some duct tape, Hon, will you?”
With water leaking everywhere and Frank cursing God, himself, and the pipes, I panicked. I wasn’t prepared for living without water. In deepening puddles. With children. In the winter. In the mountains.
“How are the roads?” I asked. Frank said they were clear. “Let’s go to Denver. I’ll call my cousin. We can stay with her. Just until you repair the pipes.”
We did, but he couldn’t. The cabin was old. The pipes corroded. The whole place needed to be replumbed.
After a few weeks, I found an apartment—with a clothes dryer. I pretended to smell the wind when I did laundry. Frank pretended to like the city. Until he couldn’t. The mountains summoned the man. He returned to the cabin. First to do the plumbing. Then to live there. Until he didn’t. He died one night. Carbon monoxide.
The girls and I moved back East, to be closer to my folks. And here I was, a dozen years later, on a train to New Haven. Betsy was graduating from college. Francie was in her second year. Both on scholarships. I had a good job. We had done well. Frank would be proud.
Passing through an anonymous, rundown city in the Northeast industrial corridor, I noticed clothes hanging from dingy backyard clotheslines and—clip-clip—I was yanked back. To my childhood. To frostbitten fingers. To the cabin. To Frank. To last time I pinned wind-blown sheets to a clothesline.
Tears oozed then gushed. Thawed water from a broken pipe.