As International Women’s Day flooded the social scene with events celebrating women’s political, economic and social advancement, my own personal empowerment took place in a flood in the bathroom.
My adventure began unexpectedly at 2:30 on a Friday afternoon — when else do emergencies happen, really? — when I walked into the bathroom and stepped into a two-inch puddle of water. I might have chalked it up to shower spray, except that there was also brown water on the toilet and a few inches of dirty water in the bathtub. Clearly there was a problem.
As loath as I am to admit this, my first thought was, predictably, about the man in my life. (To put it in perspective, the fact is my husband worked as a plumber for our first few years of marriage, so it’s not necessarily a gender thing, just a professional thing. Or so I keep telling myself.) But my spouse of nearly 20 years happened to be away last week, and there I was at home a few hours before Shabbat with my 15-year-old son and 7-year old daughter facing a flooded bathroom.
It’s amazing how much certain situations become all about gender. The thought, “I need a man to do this for me” was knocking on my brain like a toddler who has to pee. I didn’t want to let that thought in, did not want it to take over my life’s experience. But it was there. I wanted my husband home. And I was looking at my son, all of 15, as if perhaps he would save me.
It took a significant degree of self-honesty to admit that I have never fixed a sink. “Sure you have,” my oldest daughter said later. Really? I asked via non-verbal facial expression. “Well, we’ve watched abba fix sinks,” she corrected herself. Exactly.
So, putting aside that sense of shame that comes with the realization that I’m just a big talker, I took a deep breath and rolled up my sleeves (and pants, as it were) and got to work. I didn’t panic, and I began to take stock of the situation. What I discovered, to my own surprise, was that my husband has actually taught me a few things over the years. I knew what a few of the pieces were and how they get on and off. And the truth is, plumbing has a lot of logic to it. Water flows through the pipes usually in the direction of gravity. That’s the pshat — all else is midrash.
I quickly fixed the bathtub which turned out to be a minor issue, and got started on the toilet before calling in my son to help. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t turning him into “the man around” when he is still 25 years younger than me. I fixed the multiple toilet issues all by myself (yes, really, go me), while he began on the sink. When we realized it was a two-man job, so to speak, that’s when the hard part started. We both got very wet and dirty but found the first problem, and fixed it.
There were, however, multiple blockages, which required us not only to remove the pipes beneath the sink but also to move the sink itself. (I have no doubt that there is an easier way to do all this, but I don’t want to think about that right now.) At a certain point my 18-year-old daughter came home and joined the party. (By the way, the bathroom isn’t really big enough to fit three people, so it was quite a scene).
As my daughter and son were learning to cooperate over the clogged pipes and I was directing them, I must say that my deep pride exceeded all sense of frustration at the situation. They are strong, they are capable, they are smart, and they are fully equals. And so am I. That was really nice.
The good news is, we fixed everything — and the bathroom, by the way, has never been cleaner. The other good news is that we now know a lot more about how our sink works than we ever thought about. The bad news is we were at work for about three hours, until minutes before Shabbat, and we did not have all that much cooked food around. But we ate at neighbors and all is well. Nobody starved.
The other bad news is that in all the fuss I forgot to turn on the heat before Shabbat and it was quite a cold night, and some of us have been with drippy noses ever since (drippy noses but no drippy sinks!).
Most importantly, though, I have forever dispelled the nagging “I need a man” mantra from my consciousness, the mantra that so many women have carried for generations, the mantra that has so often kept women from even trying to discover our own power. And next time my daughter thinks to herself, “I fixed a sink,” her memory will be true, and it will be her own.