Friday, October 11, 2013

Would Anyone Mind ... If I Had A Bath?

from Jacqueline

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?


  1. I still cannot open someone else's refrigerator. My mother taught me that it was the height of bad manners to look for food without first being asked.

  2. We had one bathroom for 4 people. But we only had a septic tank so we were never allowed to fill the tub more than 3-4 inches. Not a very satisfying soak in the tub. I used to ask my mother if I could eat something if I was hungry between meals. Not sure why. We were taught to never ask someone "How much did it cost?" or to brag about our accomplishments. That's why it's so hard for me as an author to hype my books. Welcome back, Our J.

  3. BusyB - thanks for the memory. I'm pretty sure I would never open someone else's refrigerator - definitely bad manners. And Patty - I absolutely understand every one of your memories there - I tend to shrink when other people talk about my books in front of me. And certainly, you would never ask the price of an item unless you were in a shop! And the joys of the septic tank - oh boy!

  4. I was always told it was impolite to ask a lady her age. Today everyone it is no big deal. I have had neighbor kids, people at stores and shops or just in general conversation with a stranger. Sometimes I actually give my age to see what they say...other times I give an older age (like my father used to do) so I can hear how good I look for my age!! lol As for baths or showers I still will let someone know when I am headed in just in case they need to use it first. And definitely at other peoples homes.

  5. Jacqueline,

    Although I'm an American Jacqueline (who also writes mystery fiction and is a big fan of yours) I grew up in an age of one bathroom for the family. And so it was natural to coordinate use of the tub. But that, of course, has changed with time like so many other things. It's now typical to have at the very least two bathrooms per household--we recently downsized to an apartment and my husband and I each have our own bathroom. In middle-class homes it's not uncommon to have three or four bathrooms. And now to write a dead body in a tub mystery--but that's just too common!

  6. Stand when a lady comes to or leave a table, address elders as Sir or Ma'am, hold the door for whomever is behind you, open the door for a lady, never beep at elderly drivers because that could be your mom or dad, never eat the last cookie, never assume the worst in people, everyone has a redeeming quality, never go to bed angry, accept responsibility, and the list goes on and on. I try to live by my parents' lessons everyday. I'm not always perfect, but I make the effort.

    By they way, my wife always informs me when she's going to take a bath so I know I have about thirty minutes to watch ESPN before she comes back down stairs.

  7. from Jacqueline

    Some great comments here - seems we all carry those lessons with us. I am always shocked when people entering a store do not stand back and allow the people coming out of the store go first - same with buses and trains - I was taught that you always stand back to allow people to leave a store/train/bus before you make your move. In fact, when I was a kid, I was in the line to get onto the bus when a boy charged forward before all disembarking passengers had stepped off - the local bobby witnessed this transgression, and his leathery paw was yanking that boy off the bus by the collar before he'd even managed to pass the driver. His feet did not even touch the ground as Sergeant J (won't give his full name) lifted him to the back of the line and gave him a talking to about gentlemen and manners! And we all knew that if the boy had complained to his parents, he would have been seriously grounded for the infraction, and for having the gall to "tell" on the local policeman.

  8. When with a lady, I always walk closer to the curb, lest a horse and buggy leap the curb. Paul Levine