How did this famous painting by Edgar Degas inspire an episode from my mother's life in my new book?
Updated: Jan 14
(Woman in a Tub by Edgar Degas, 1886)
Listening to my parents’ stories of their youth, I learned that there were stark differences between their era and mine. I often marveled at their stories: my dad’s parents clearing towering trees and mammoth rocks from the land to make way for a vegetable garden which wasn’t a hobby but a means of sustenance for the family...my mom’s father selling fresh fish, calling out “pesce, pesce, pesce” as his horse-drawn wagon traversed Shelton neighborhoods.
But a story that stood out in my mind as I began writing my latest novel based on their lives was something that had puzzled me for years – the matter of indoor plumbing, or lack thereof. The story goes back to my mother's senior year in high school.
You see, when I was a young boy of about eight years old, I remember accompanying my father several nights a week to pick up my mother at Derby High School where she was attending night school with the goal of earning her high school diploma.
When I was old enough to put two and two together, I was puzzled why an intelligent, literate woman like my mother didn’t earn her diploma with the Class of 1942.
“I quit high school in my senior year,” she explained to me.
“But why?” I asked.
Mom just shrugged. “I had to paint the outhouse,” she said flatly, like it was a fact of life: You have to paint the outhouse even if it means quitting school.
“What do you mean you had to paint the outhouse?” I asked.
“I mean I had to paint the outhouse...the backhowsa...the shed with the toilet.” (“Backhowsa” was a fractured Italian version of backhouse or, in normal English, outhouse.)
“An outhouse? Like at camp?” I asked, thinking of the latrine. Mom nodded. I was baffled. Camp was one thing, but home was another. “But why was the toilet outside?”
Another shrug, accompanied by a frown: “Because it was. Because we were that poor. My mother didn’t get indoor plumbing until several years after I was married.” Even at a young age, I could see the subject still irritated her a little, so I backed off.
This idea of no indoor plumbing raised all kinds of questions for me. What if my mom had to pee in the middle of the night, did she have to go outside? What if it was the dead of winter? What about bathing? How did my mother, her sisters, and my grandmother bathe? These are not questions that a young boy asks his mom!
Since my novel begins in the early 1940s, I decided my central character would quit school as my mother had. I needed to look more deeply into the situation, though. Couldn’t she have painted the “backhowsa” in the afternoon or on the weekend? What was the real reason Mom decided to quit school when she was so close to graduation, so close to the finish line?
And what about this matter of bathing? Enter Edgar Degas. After all, life imitates art and art imitates life. Degas’ painting gave me an idea of how my mother and her siblings might have taken a bath. How else? In a big tub plopped in the middle of the kitchen, the water drawn from one of those old cast iron pumps that probably sat just outside the back door. But did they heat the water up in a big kettle on a stove or did they bathe in cold water? Brrrr! And what if my mother and one or more of her sisters needed to bathe consecutively -- did they refill the tub with water, which seems like an awful lot of trouble, or did they just reuse the water? And if they did reuse the water, how did my mother and her sisters feel about that? Was it just another fact of life, or was it, “Yuck”?
Of course, no spoilers here. If you want to find out the answers to these questions, you’ll have to read my book when it’s published, so stay tuned!