In an act of pure spitefulness every year, the appliance god chooses December to call the roll up yonder in appliance heaven and gather up faithful senior citizen stoves, refrigerators, freezers, and furnaces from all over the country to their final landfill resting place. This is a sad day in ordinary American households like mine. In today’s economy, the purchase of a new appliance usually means credit card debt or points from a loan shark. Same difference, I think.
December is the most expensive month of the year without adding unexpected, big-ticket appliance purchases. December requires shopping, cooking, decorating, and entertaining–even for the most Scrooge-minded among us. I dread squeezing an extra bottle of wine out of the December grocery budget, so the demise of an appliance makes me want to hide under the bedcovers.
You know what happens next, right?
I blame our recent washing machine loss on the water heater that exploded in our basement last summer. Apparently, this is the way you know you need a new one. Determined to avoid a future water heater disaster, I asked our plumber, “How do you know when you need a new water heater?” His reply: “This happens.”
The plumber thought that was hilarious. Me—not so much.
When the water heater blew up in July, it flooded our basement. Naturally, we were on our way to the Gulf Coast for the single long weekend all summer when we actually planned to be out of town. We were piggybacking a family vacation weekend onto the end of a work conference. Two nights of family time—that didn’t seem too much to ask out of an entire summer.
Let me tell you something I learned: You know who your friends are when you have to call them to vacuum water out of your basement. If you’re stretched out on a lounger on the beach soaking up the rays and clutching a drink with a tiny umbrella in it while your friend sucks up gallons of water from your carpet with a shop vac, you better bring home one heck of a nice thank-you present.
Although no one can explain it, everyone agrees that when one appliance goes south, every other appliance within 100 feet tends to give up the ghost, too. It’s some type of appliance union solidarity statement. Previously healthy stoves, refrigerators, and clothes dryers–which have been gamely plugging along with nothing more than a little duct tape support for years–suddenly develop life-threatening tics and God-awful sounds. Within days, every appliance in the house is on its way to the street. Appliance diseases are highly contagious. Everyone knows that.
As a parent, I am always on the lookout for teaching moments in daily life. Sickly appliances present perfect case studies for teenagers with regard to financial choices. It’s a quick lesson in the distinction between “want” and “need.” For example, mama wants a fancy, new gas stove, but mama needs a working washing machine.
Nothing says “Happy Holidays!” to one’s spouse better than a marital field trip to the discount store to replace an appliance. My not-even-seven-years-old front-loading, Duet washing machine was officially pronounced DNR on December 15th. No amount of cursing, kicking, Google-trolling for advice, YouTube video watching, or frantic emails and texts to handy friends and family members resulted in a Christmas miracle. I responded as any mother of three laundry-producing monsters would likely respond. I let ‘er rip with a stream of colorful, hair-curling, heartfelt obscenities—in every language in which I claim gutter fluency. Yes, indeed. I cursed that hunk of future landfill metal into oblivion.
After I got that out of my system, I poured myself a Christmas toddy and sat on the basement steps to contemplate my options. The washing machine was groaning loudly enough to be heard on three floors. It sounded exactly like a metal canoe being dragged down a driveway paved with oyster shells. I’ve since learned that sound is easily diagnosed as a drum bearings problem. If you hear this noise in your own basement, your washer is toast. Trust me. Save yourself a service call. Every few minutes, I caught sight of the washing machine in my peripheral vision, and another stream of profanity leapt from my lips like a geyser at Yellowstone.
The facts were indisputable. I could not afford to buy a new washing machine in December. The fat man was scheduled to squeeze down my chimney in less than two weeks, and my teenagers had penned very expensive lists. (Years ago, my middle child asked me if I’d like him to put something for me on his Christmas list for Santa. “After all,” he reminded me, “It’s free.” Thoughtful, I thought. Those were sweet days.)
On a regular day—not counting tablecloths and cloth napkins used for holiday entertaining, I wash four loads of laundry. You read that correctly. I had to replace the washer. It was as simple as that, and sooner rather than later. Like kudzu left unattended in the South where I live, dirty laundry would creep up my basement stairs in a matter of days, spill into the hallway, and slowly smother sofas, beds, and eventually the children sleeping in their beds and cars in the driveway. It was time to suck it up and shop.
Armed with sale circulars, Internet price comparisons, and a bad attitude, I strong-armed my husband into accompanying me to the store.
“Why do you need me to go with you?” he whined. “I don’t know anything about washing machines!”
“I know that,” I said, “but we live in a sexist world. You’re more likely to get a good deal than I am from the appliance guys.”
“That’s ridiculous,” he claimed.
“I agree, but it’s the truth,” I told him. “I’m not condoning sexism in the market place! I’m just acknowledging it. I can’t change the world today. I need a cheap washer. You’re more likely to get that than I am. Come with me now before my head explodes.”
“Fine,” he capitulated, not very nicely.
Our entry into the appliance store confirmed all my worst expectations. My husband was greeted with a handshake and a hearty, “What are you shopping for today, sir?” I, on the other hand, was ignored like a big, hairy mole everyone could clearly see but no one wanted to call attention to.
Sure, it’s possible that I was ignored because I was clutching numerous newspaper circulars haphazardly in my hands, and my reading glasses were perched precariously on my nose. These are dollar-store beauties, so they are most often slightly askew, an accessory that adds a certain je ne sais quoi to a slight whiff of crazy I sometimes emit when I’m focused on a mission. I am quite sure I gave off a loaded-for-bear, don’t-try-to-pull-a-fast-one-on-me-buddy vibe of scary, menopausal woman in serious panic mode.
“WE NEED TO BUY A NEW WASHING MACHINE!” I announced loudly to the air in front of me. Clearly, my announcement was a jarring interruption in the friendly football bowl game jawing going on between my husband and the salesman.
I was not in the mood.
Once I had everyone’s attention, I barreled straight ahead.
“My front-loading washing machine died. I hate it. I should never have bought it. I knew it would leak one day and flood my basement, and it did. I don’t want another front-loader ever again. Also, I want knobs. Do you have anything with old-fashioned knobs instead of computer screens, which always malfunction? I can’t get anyone to come to my house to repair an appliance for love or money. I want a washing machine that will last. Do you have anything like that? Nobody makes anything that lasts anymore. Everything is disposable. It’s so wasteful! It’s bad for the environment and just plain wrong on so many levels. What does it say about our culture that everything is designed to be replaced rather than repaired? It’s a metaphor for the decline of civilization; don’t you agree?”
My tirade was greeted with complete silence on the showroom floor.
I looked up from my papers, over the top of my reading glasses, and made eye contact with the salesman. He was standing side-by-side with my husband like Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Both had their hands in their pockets and their mouths hanging open.
“What?” I asked, mystified by the fish-mouth response.
“I think there’s some Tylenol in the car if you want it,” my husband offered.
“I don’t need Tylenol!” I responded, outraged at the male urge to medicate the hysterical female in their midst.
“Could we focus on the appliances, please?” I demanded in my most withering tone.
“Absolutely,” my husband answered wisely.
The salesman studied his clipboard in silence. He was clearly afraid to make eye contact with me again.
“I guess you aren’t interested in hearing about the warranty today, are you, ma’am?”
“Not in the slightest,” I responded.