Feb 22 2012

When it Spills, it Pours

Getting out of Paris was brutal. With only one day on the ground after a trans-Atlantic overnight flight, kicking into get-the-car-packed-high-gear took a tremendous effort. Loading the car took the right blend of brute force and spatial strategy. Buddy-roo’s old bureau, now replaced by a new grown-up chest of drawers, had been earmarked for the country house. We had to wind it down the stairwell and cram it into the trunk of the car. De-facto secured it with our collection of orphan bungee cords. We were one of those cars on the highway, stuffed to the gills and precariously secured.

Dusk was about to turn dark as we pulled in front of the stone house, the car headlights catching the little eyes of some creature in the grass. I crawled out of the front passenger seat, stepping over my computer case, handbag and another bag of something that wouldn’t fit in the trunk – crowding my feet for the entire drive – and stretched my stiff body before starting the ritual of opening the house. Electricity on. Close the refrigerator door and plug it in. Start the fire. I set about breaking the kindling while De-facto ventured out to the side yard with a flashlight to turn on the water. Short-pants and Buddy-roo paced around the cold room, not unbearably freezing like it was earlier this winter, but still too chilly to remove their coats, while I crushed up pieces of newspaper and piled the broken sticks on top.

When the water flow is restored – we drain the whole system whenever we leave during the winter – there is always a surge and sound of water forcing its way again through the pipes and you have to make a tour to every tap in the bathrooms and kitchen to shut off the faucets which were left open to avoid a freeze. De-facto had done the tour, and went out to finish unloading the car and I was swearing at the kindling that wouldn’t catch. The girls were walking circles around the kitchen table singing “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” (this year’s school theater production, but that’s another post) when a rush of water spewed out of one of the pipes leading to the kitchen sink. A connection had split. The water sprayed out in two directions, at full force, gushing out on to the floor.

“Turn it off!” I shouted to De-facto, unable in that split second to recall the most critical words of this command: the water. I dropped the iron fire poker to the ground and ran toward the sink. Several plastic buckets, used to collect water when we closed the house at the end of our last visit, were stacked in the corner of the room. I grabbed them and ran to the broken pipe, holding one under each jet of water. I was stunned at how quickly they filled up.

“Turn it off! The water! The pipe is broken!” I managed to inject more information into this second appeal. De-facto sprinted out to the yard while I filled and dumped the buckets, not without spilling more on the already flooded floor, until the spewing water trickled into a slow stream and finally stopped.

I turned around to see the girls frozen in place, standing exactly where they’d been the moment it started. Short-pants was all deer-in-the-headlights. Buddy-roo was on the verge of tears, “This is the most horrible country house in the world!”

“It’s okay,” I said, “it’s not something that can’t be fixed.”

“We have to toughen them up,” I said. (Not out loud, though.)

The real crisis, I determined, was that while attending to the water surge, the kindling had burned and cooled before any larger logs could be added to their flames. The fire was dead. We were 0 for 2 on the way to any kind of dinner.

While De-facto traced the origin of the broken pipe to figure how to shut off the right valves so that at least some of our taps functioned, I phoned the plumber, his name preserved on a post-it in a moldy notebook in a dusty drawer. We had no expectation that he would come immediately – this he was relieved to learn – but I wanted to alert him to our situation and plead for a visit the next morning.

What followed next: a new wheelbarrow full of wood and a second go at the fire, this time with more kindling and more success. Potatoes and onions and carrots chopped and in the pot. Cheese grated. A smug self-satisfaction at the ample wine supply acquired during our last visit, the sound of a cork popping which eases any country house catastrophe.

“So,” I said at dinner, “what if I hadn’t been in the room when the pipe burst. What would you have done?”

“I don’t know.”

“Call Papa.”

It makes me wonder: how and when do you learn how to react in an emergency? At what age does the hop-to kick in? Maybe they need to go to Girl Scouts. Something. Our children stood there absolutely paralyzed, unable to move or think of a response. This shouldn’t surprise me: a cup of milk (or juice or water) gets knocked over on table at home, and they freeze up and scream for me.

“You know what do to,” I’ve told them. “Run to the kitchen, grab a towel and a sponge, run back before it spills off the table and onto the carpet.

I know they’re good kids, bright kids, doing their best, learning how to live in the world. But next time, if I can possibly turn off my own hop-to I’m going to stand there with them and gawk whatever’s spilling over the edge of the table. Then I’ll ask, “What are you going to do?” And wait.

On the bright side, it’s one way to get a new carpet.


Feb 26 2011

Fire Drill

I’m still getting used to the new fry pans. Since we swore off Teflon, I’ve yet to get the right balance of butter and heat and pancake batter to avoid filling the kitchen with smoke. Yesterday’s breakfast preparation elicited the high-pitched scream of our smoke detector. All heads bolted up, eyes rounded. De-facto knew it was the smoke from the stove but surveyed the apartment anyway and then reached up with his long arms to reset the alarm.

As the girls turned back to their syrupy plates, he said, “What if it had been a real fire? What would you have done?”

“Get low and go!” Short-pants and Buddy-roo shouted in unison. This from a Sesame Street book featuring Elmo and several fire-fighters which was conveniently in favor a few years ago, helping us to teach the girls about fire safety.

“Right. You get low,” De-facto said, “and where do you go?”

The girls repeated the instructions that we’ve pounded into them. How they need to call out loud for mama and papa and bang on the bedroom door (if it’s at night) to wake us up. How on the way out the door, they should bang on our neighbors’ doors and shout out to them on their way down the stairs and out to the meeting place down the street.

“Good,” De-facto said, “but don’t spend too much time banging on doors for mama or the neighbors, just enough to alert them. You want to get out of the building as fast as you can.”

He’s right, I know, though it feels a bit heartless, the way he says it, that they would leave me to burn in my sleep.

“Yes, but if the fire is in the hall and we can’t get out the door, we should climb out on the roof!” Buddy-roo says this every time we run through this drill, and every time I’m sure my head jerks toward her with big wide eyes.

I shudder to think of her and Short-pants pushing themselves out on to our roof, which is sloped at a serious diagonal angle. It’s nearly impossible to traverse it. I know, having done so when I was without keys and crawled out of our neighbor’s window and, in my bare feet to keep a grip, inched along the roof to the open window of our locked apartment. I’d give them two steps on that roof before they’d slide down and over the gutter, falling four stories to the cobblestone street.

Short-pants recognized my alarm.

“But that’s a last resort!” she said, to assure me.

“And only if the fireman are there with a ladder, and with a trampoline,” added Buddy-roo.

To say that I’m terrified is too strong, but I’m seriously concerned that in the event of a fire, the two of them would panic and climb out on the roof right away, or that when they’re a wee bit older and lot more daring they’ll try it just for kicks. I always make the big pronouncement about how it really is a last, last, last resort, and only if there’s no other way out, and ideally with the fire department there to help them. I picture one of those blue-uniformed French Pompier – and they are uniformly buff – carrying the girls down the extended ladder. I’d absolutely crawl out on the roof in my nightgown if one of them were waiting to rescue me. If there was time, I’d even change into that sexy little silk number first.

“You only go out on the roof is if there’s really no other choice,” I said.

The girls returned to their breakfast, the kitchen silent except for the sound of their cutlery on the plates and the thought-absorbed chewing of pancakes.

Until Buddy-roo burst into tears: “I don’t want to be without any parents.”

I moved to where she was seated, already big fat teardrops were sliding down her reddened cheeks. I told her I don’t want her to be without parents either, and that the chance of a fire in our apartment is very slim and it would be very unlikely that her Papa and I woudn’t smell the smoke and we’d all go out the door and down to the street together. She slid off her chair and threw her arms around my neck in a fierce hug. I could feel her wet tears on my shoulder.

What I wanted to say to her was, “Don’t worry you’re not going to be left without any parents.” But I can’t really promise that. We all know someone who’s fighting a disease they didn’t expect to get in the middle of their life. The busses in Paris run fast down their designated lanes, I could be hit by one at any time. A tragic or poignant disappearance is, in fact, always at hand. I don’t need to dwell on it, but I can’t hide it from her, either.

So I didn’t say anything. I just rocked her back and forth without words, feeling her against me, her little heart beating, alive, just like mine. Then she loosened her embrace and let go and turned back to her empty plate, and asked for another pancake.