Holy Water

Author: Douglas Curran ’00MFA

It is my duty to open the lake house this year without my father, my first time without him. It won’t be easy. The challenge is getting the water started after a frigid winter of dormancy during which pipes improperly drained the previous fall may have cracked. Cracks and breaks destroy the vacuum the pump seeks to make in order to draw water from the well. It’s a question of pressure. If a certain measure of pressure cannot be established and then maintained by the system of pump, valves and exposed copper piping, there’s no water.

Running water is essential at the lake house—essential to comfort, essential to upholding the sense that all is well and that the wilderness just beyond the back-porch door will be kept at bay while one stays within the refuge of the house. Not that a visitor to the lake house needs to hide from nature. In truth, this is impossible—mosquitoes get in, dirt gets in, flies get in, cold gets in. Besides, one goes to the lake for the very purpose of coming closer to nature. But there’s a feeling of well-being and peace to be had in knowing that the trappings of civilization are available, that expected amenities are working as they should—that one doesn’t need to fetch a bucket of water from the lake in order to flush the toilet. That’s to say nothing of having to go to the outhouse, which is no longer really an option, as it is sinking into the earth and is, beyond being unpleasant, rather dangerous. Of course, civilization can be bumpy and will fail even in the most favorable of circumstances; at the lake, bumps and failure are to be expected—and overcome. Anything less than this is unacceptable.

Scars of past difficulties, as well as triumphs over those difficulties, are marked in an irregular fashion along the length of copper pipe suspended under the back porch and beneath the kitchen floor. Irregular and knobby caps and plugs, ranging from a quarter of an inch to an inch in diameter, stand out like keloids, boils and warts on the surface of the otherwise smooth brown-green metal. At such places, after previous winters have caused breaks or cracks, sections of old copper have been replaced with new pipe sporting caps or plugs, which are screwed into place at the onset of the summer season when the house is opened and removed at season’s end for proper draining.

During my period of training in lake-house opening and closing, roughly the last 20 years, it has been my job to slide on my belly, through spider webs and dust, under the front porch, using an old, lime-green deflated raft as protection from the ground of dirt and ancient leaves and worms, and, with wrench, pliers or fingers, screw on (or in) these caps and plugs. By now, at age 33, I am an expert at this. However, there is a second, more complicated side to the process of turning on the water that, for my entire life, has been executed by my father. This includes the priming of the pump as well as troubleshooting when things fail.

Pump priming is difficult. It requires determination, an indefinable knack and luck—and can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an entire afternoon to accomplish, along with inordinate amounts of lake water from an old plastic Coke bottle poured into the gasping device. Troubleshooting begins when priming attempts fail, when water pressure does not build to the 45 or 50 pounds required, when the pump continues to whine and becomes hot, laboring without respite from below, from the cool, deep spring. In former years, inevitably, my father would get the system up and running. This year he will not be returning to the lake, will not play his traditional role of pump primer and troubleshooter. Both of these tasks come now to me, as my father, this past April, has died, at the too-young age of 64—victim to the failure of his own set of pumps and valves and tubing.

Summer season after summer season, year after year, we have returned to the lake house, and on each opening day an air of breathlessness, of ceremony tinged with dread, has accompanied the starting of the pump. Will the water come up easily, or will this year’s efforts prove a mighty struggle? Urgency will grow as failure persists, as the sun makes its way toward the mountain, behind which it will set, its light pulled with it from the sky. A night at the lake house without running water is to be avoided at all costs. Evening ablutions—hand washing, face cleansing, tooth brushing—are in jeopardy, and the prospect of drawing from the lake buckets of water at 2 a.m. for toilet flushing is a worrisome one. Of course, should all else fail, there’s always the plumber. It may take a day or two or even three, but eventually the sole plumber within 20 miles who can do the job will come.

Still one never wants to rely on the plumber, as he may be on vacation or sick or who knows what. One wants to solve this problem on one’s own; one wants the reassurance that challenges will be met and overcome by he to whom they first appear; that stress, mechanical difficulties, failures of the system are mere trifles to be overcome by resolve, by force of character, by will.

It becomes clear to me that more is involved here than the individual or the mechanical. In coming to terms with the pump and the system that circulates the water to the key terminals in the house (bathroom faucet, shower, toilet; kitchen sink, water-heater tank) an unusual communion is established whereby he who starts and settles the pump to proper working order participates in a generations-old ritual encompassing those who have come before and those who will follow—my great-grandfather, my grandfather, my father, me. We are all parts of a system that has come to life and died with the seasons, to be brought to life again each spring with a sputtering unruliness.

I understand now what it is that I’ve been feeling all these years when it comes time to close the lake house, when it comes time to shut off the water and drain the pipes. It is sadness in anticipation of death that I have known, year after year—inevitable end.

The lake house remains my place of solace, as it existed for my father up till his very last day. It is where he longed to return with the onset of spring, with the coming of summer; the place he longed to return to in his last dark, cold winter. He’s there now, I know it. I will go soon, as the season is nearly upon us, and I will join him when I bend over the pump and, in time, inevitably, draw water from the earth. It will flow clear and strong again. I am resolved. Anything less than this is unacceptable.

Douglas Stephen Curran’s essay “My Belated Reading of his Shortened Life” appeared in this magazine’s Spring 2006 issue. He is an editor at Rizzoli International Publications and lives in Brooklyn, New York.