It was sometime in the ’60s. We were living in a big house in Iowa City’s Goosetown area. The house didn’t have central air conditioning, but my husband had bought one window unit for our bedroom– the justification being that he needed to have a good night’s sleep in order to be able to work the next day. The kids and I, he reasoned, spent most summer days out of doors anyway and, on really murderous days, we could go to the park for a swim in the pool, or splash in the spray from the hose in the back yard. He, on the other hand, had to stay in his office and work. His air conditioned office. Our house was built in 1904, had a tall, insulating attic, high ceilings, numerous big windows to let breezes in, and four huge elm trees that shaded it from the south and west. Even on hot days, it was fairly comfortable. The kids and I ignored the inequities of the air conditioned bedroom (after all, I got to share it) and took advantage of some of the other ways to keep cool. Ways I learned from my mother.
My mother was a genius at keeping cool without the benefits of air conditioning. She kept cooking to a minimum, and limited it to early in the morning before the sun streamed through the kitchen windows and heated up the house. She served cold foods, not only to avoid cooking, but to avoid warming us up with hot meals. She hosed down the porch, steps, and outside of the house after supper when the sun no longer warmed them. She was one of the first people I knew to make sun tea. She seems to have discovered this on her own, letting the sun warm the water to release the flavor of the tea rather than brewing strong tea and pouring it over ice as all the cookbooks dictated. The tea was consistently clear and sweeter than the often bitter results of the hot brewing method.
She kept us girls cool by various ruses involving water. One was to put us to work watering her flowers. She started by filling a washtub with water and setting it where it would be, by afternoon, in the shade of the garage. The sun would warm the water during the earlier part of the day so that, by mid afternoon, it would be tepid enough for us to use as a wading pool. The tub was full nearly to overflowing to begin with, so she suggested that we use the cups from our toy tea set to dip out the water and pour it on the flowers growing along the fence. This kept us busy, going back and forth with our little tin cups containing only spoons full of water at a time. We got sufficiently splashed with water to keep us cool, lowered the level of the washtub so it wouldn’t run over later with two or three little girls swimming in it, and furnished the flowers with needed moisture.
After lunch, we’d often be plopped into the bathtub, not necessarily to be washed, but just to be cooled down. She made waxed-paper boats for us to sail back and forth, and sometimes washed our hair, letting us sculpt fantasy hair-dos in our lathered hair, pretending to be movie stars or mermaids. Cooled by the leisurely bath, we’d be dried and powdered and in our underwear, to lie on a cool sheet spread on the living room carpet while Mother read to us, or we colored in our picture books or played with paper dolls. Sometimes, we napped. By late afternoon, we were ready to get outdoors and play, even in the heat, and Mother was ready to get us out from underfoot so she could plan supper and, maybe take a cooling bath of her own while we played in the washtub full of water. Sometimes, we’d have water-fights, scooping the water up in those little tin cups and throwing it at each other, or dumping it over our own heads. By five-thirty when the town whistle blew signifying the end of the business day, we knew that Dad would soon be coming home from the garage, tired and hot from a day of dealing with heated car engines. We often plotted to ambush him, hiding beside the low picket fence where the flowers grew. He never seemed to mind getting attacked by three little girls brandishing teacups filled with cooling splashes of water.
Many years later, some Iowa City friends of ours had just built a state-of-the-art new house with year-round climate control. This meant that the windows were sealed shut, as there was never a reason to open them. Fresh air was pumped into the house via an air circulation system, filtered and cooled or heated automatically to the ideal temperature and humidity by an elaborate system of fans, heaters, coolers, humidifiers and dehumidifiers. Then, a wild summer storm cut off the electric power to a large section of town for over twenty-four hours. Motels in areas not affected by the power outage were almost instantly booked to capacity. Our friends appeared on our front porch, seeking refuge from the smothering heat and humidity in their own house. Ours, even though we had no power and no cooling system, at least had windows that would open and trees that offered cooling shade, and I was glad for the tricks I’d learned from my mother.