Last weekend I was in North Carolina staying with dear friends who I know pretty well. We’d spent the first morning visiting their new haunts – they’d relocated to the state from the San Francisco Bay Area about six months ago – so by the time late afternoon rolled around, we were back at their home ready to relax and kick back. At that point I asked my hosts if it would be OK for me to take a hot bath. They looked a tad embarrassed and said, “Well of course it is,” and seemed incredulous that I had asked (after all, the guest suite had its own very nice bathroom). I hadn’t wanted to embarrass anyone, and tried to explain that, well, I had never in my life just assumed it was OK to go ahead and take a hot bath when I pleased, especially in someone else's house. Again, there was that look of incredulity. My husband is used to me checking in with him by now (“OK with you if I have a hot bath, love?”), even though I know he thinks it’s a bit odd. But then, he was brought up in a house with plenty of bathrooms – and we all know you Americans are mighty particular about the number of bathrooms you have at your disposal.
I suppose it all goes back to childhood – don’t most of our little ticks and habits that others don’t quite understand go back to childhood? Let me explain. Until I was thirteen or thereabouts, I had never lived in a house with an actual bathroom. But then, I had never lived in a house less than one hundred years old. Most old houses were not built with bathrooms, and unless someone had added a bathroom later, well, this was what you had to put up with – the WC was outside, and if you wanted a bath, someone had to stoke up the fire to heat the water, which would later be drawn off to fill a tin bath placed in front of the kitchen range.
That’s how we used to bathe when I was a kid – of course, you had privacy, because by the time the water was hot, the rest of the family were in the living room watching Coronation Street (Britain’s longest-running TV soap - sorry about the pun). I still remember my mother placing towels on the rail above the range, so they’d be warm by the time we needed them – and on cold nights she’d open the fire-door, so you were toasty and flushed with heat as you steeped yourself. At some point Dad brought home a real bathtub, which was plumbed in just behind the kitchen door – it was a huge kitchen, by the way – and the same rules applied; the fire was stoked, the water heated up sufficiently, and the family vanished while you had your bath. This is what happens when your parents buy a somewhat decrepit early Victorian house “in need of some modernization” – which turns out to be a 25-year remodel project. Therefore you can see how the business of having a hot bath always required something of an announcement and a bit of preparation.
That is not me, though I had the same stylish haircut.
At last, when I was 13, the builders came, walls went up, the large kitchen was rendered smaller - and after what seemed like weeks of construction, we had a real bathroom with an indoor WC! But the fire still had to be stoked if anyone wanted a bath, so you still had to ask, “Is it OK if I have a bath tonight?”
Perhaps there’s really no need for me to request permission anymore, though I still believe it's the right thing to do. Someone else might need the hot water I’m just about to wallow in. Growing up we only had that one bathroom (eventually ….) – indeed, everyone I knew only had one bathroom – so obviously I wouldn’t want to be languishing in the bathtub while another family member was banging on the door and turning blue with the need to use the loo. Clearly, asking if it’s OK to have a hot bath is a habit acquired in childhood that after all these years – and many bathrooms later - I just can’t seem to kick, though there was respite during the years I lived alone and could do what I liked with the water supply. No one has ever said, “Oh no, it’s shower or nothing in this house,” or “Maybe tomorrow” or “I don’t think so.” – but I know I would feel ill mannered if I hadn't bothered to ask. And I’m not the only one. When I was last staying with my oldest, dearest friend and her family in England, we were watching TV one evening, when she stood up and said, “Anyone mind if I have a bath.” No, no one minded. It just took another hour until the water was hot enough for me take a bath - and of course, I asked first.
My question to you, gentle reader, is, in the realm of good manners, what has lingered in your life from childhood?