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  • Personal Hygiene
  • Bette Lynch Husted (bio)

I have the kind of dry skin that makes my fingertips crack open, so I know it doesn't make sense to bathe so often. But after every t'ai chi class my friend Barbara and I head for the women's steam room, all that wonderful hot fog floating around us until my contacts threaten to swim out of my eyes, completely waterlogged. The steam room is not nearly as intense, either physically or spiritually, as the few Northwest Indian sweat houses I have been invited to enter, but it's the closest thing available, and it's lovely. We have to take our dip in the women's Jacuzzi first. Its water is not quite as hot as we wish anyway, and it feels lukewarm, even cool, after a steam bath. The club has adjusted the women's showers so almost no water comes out – I don't think the men would put up with this feeble trickle, and how women with long hair manage a shampoo I don't know – but Barbara always saves the broken shower head, the real gusher, for me. Sometimes in late afternoon or evening if my shoulders are a bit tight I fill the bathtub at home too. Soaking in Epsom salts, four cups in water deep enough to cover my shoulders, is a trick I learned from a massage therapist.

Once I was led through a very large house midway through its construction. The owners were the only employers in the one-mill town where I was teaching high school English, people who owned a team of polo ponies and later, a Thoroughbred that made headlines as Seattle Slew. Each child's bedroom would include a fireplace and its own sauna, my guide pointed out; but what I have never forgotten was the vertical Japanese immersion tub adjoining the master bedroom. Now she had my attention.

Cleanliness isn't really the point, just a happy byproduct. And although I prefer my water as hot as I can stand it, a snowmelt mountain lake will do too, and a river's current is even better.

I grew up in a house without a bathroom. Having an outhouse seemed fairly normal at the time. We called it the toilet; outhouse [End Page 118] was the word my town friends used when they stayed overnight, the same ones who said things like, "You can't fool me – cows don't have horns!" Going outside to the toilet seemed as normal as going out to the barn or down to the well. Until I was eleven we carried all our water in buckets and of course had to heat both bath water and dishwater on the stove, so baths in the round metal washtub were fairly quick affairs in a couple of inches of water. Among my earliest memories is the wonderful feeling of Mama wrapping me in a towel and hurrying me, still warm, into flannel pajamas ("Dry me quick, Mama, before I chap and break in two!" my older sister said once, making everyone laugh). When she had tucked us into bed Mama added another teakettle of boiling water to the tub for her own bath, and then it was Dad's turn. We weren't dirty enough to scare him, he said, but I thought being last was brave of him anyway. The electric range that replaced the old wood-burning cookstove when I was eight made baths a lot easier, especially on August nights, and then the summer after I turned eleven Dad dug a trench and piped the water into the kitchen. I could quit envying the old farmhouses with the pump handle right by the sink now. Hot water just by turning on a faucet. He bought the biggest hot water tank that he could find, one with a quick recovery, and over four decades later it is still in service.

But we couldn't have a bathroom. The well just wasn't strong enough to support all that flushing. Sometimes in late summer the well went dry in spite of our carefully measured water use and we were back to kettles simmering...


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pp. 118-125
Launched on MUSE
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