On the third day of Great Reading: The Christmas Well

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By J.L. Oakley

When the city pipes broke at four above zero, the water spread out across our road like the thick roots of a crystal Banyan tree and froze. We all came out to stare, our boots slipping on the remains of last week’s snow. It was three days before Christmas. Our trees and lights were up, our cookies in the canisters, and stockings on the mantle, but we had no water.

“Not until the twenty-eight,” the Forest Hills Water Department said and would have left it at that until someone got the brilliant idea of hauling up a water tank and putting it at the top of the hill.

“At least it’s something,” a neighbor said and went to organize her pots. Others weren’t so sure and said that the season was ruined.

Our community well arrived that afternoon. An old World War II water tankard bristling with spigots, its camouflage shell looked odd against the neat pre-war brick homes lined with hedges and crusted with old snow. Curious children and their parents watched a brief demonstration, and then were left to their imaginations how they would actually do it.

I heard about the tankard after I came home from junior high school. Mom, Dad, and my brothers, John and Bruce, had already carried enough pots of water into the kitchen to make it look like a battlefield after a major roof leak. (There was a leak of some sort, a family member later recalled. A pipe had snapped from the cold.) We had water in stew pots, canning pots, sauce pans, and even a few tin cans for the powder room. A large boiler was on the stove for doing dishes and washing hands.

In the living room behind the swinging kitchen doors, Handel played on the radio. The windows were painted with angels and snowflakes. The tree was ready to trim. Christmas was not going to be delayed.

Winters are cold and often snowy in Pittsburgh. Except for the hordes of children with whom I sledded in the open field below the alley, neighbors only glimpsed and waved at one another as they communally scrapped ice or snow off windshields on the way to work or to shop. Snowman-worthy snow might bring out a few townspeople for a moment’s divertissement, but that was usually reserved for the younger crowd. Most folks kept to their calendar of baking, Christmas card writing, and package sending-off. Visiting applied only to a few close friends and often it was by

telephone to catch up on the day’s news. In winter we just stayed inside. The Christmas well changed that.

From morning to night we bundled up in our bright wool coats and scarves and rubber over-boots and trudged up the hill to the tankard with our pails and pots in hand, like ants making lines to a picnic. Neighbors that we hadn’t seen since summer or hardly knew at all tiptoed down their steep stairs or off their brick porches to go to the well. As we gathered

Christmas Well cover

at the spigots, conversations blossomed in the frigid air, puffing out like little smoke signals.

“What’s news, Mrs. Hanna? Did you get your tree?”

“My car didn’t start again.”

“My grandkids are coming for Christmas Eve.”

The pots and pans were filled, but so were the spaces between neighbors. Older times were recalled and strategies on hauling water offered. “When I was growing up on the farm we had a pump. Had to prime it every time. Mother always kept a can of water next to it just for that.”

“We had a well in Italy. The whole village used it.”

We stopped and listened to the stories. We filled and hauled and laughed at our communal inconvenience. Our own village was born right there in our neighborhood.

The Christmas Well

In this charming essay, a city street is without water three days before Christmas. All the families think Christmas was lost. Then the city brings in a water tank.

Going to get water from the “well” on Christmas Eve becomes a special childhood memory as neighbors young and old fill their buckets and pans and share their joys of the season despite a little more than inconvenience.

One of 12 books you could win in the 12 Days of Great Reading sweepstakes

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