Since the drought began in California, my mom has become even more overzealous about conserving water. “The lawn is all brown blotches,” she giggled before I went home to visit last summer. “I turn off all the sprinkler but I think Marcelino turns it on.” Marcelino is our neighbor. He is retired gardener who sometimes comes over with his grandkids to tend to our yard. I think he feels bad for it.
“How do you know he turns the sprinklers on? Is the water bill super high?”
“Oh no. Bill is lower than before drought!” she boasted. “At night I go to gym to take a shower. I really yell at people when they take shower too long. Hey! Hello? We are in drought! Hello?”
I laughed. Her frugality may have started out as immigrant necessity but it has since morphed into a kind of renegade environmentalism. She conserves everything—electricity, gas, food, and of course water—which most people used to consider “free” out of the municipal tap.
Growing up, we were never allowed to be frivolous with our water use. My sister and I took baths together with only four or five inches of water. Scooping enough water to pour over our heads felt like we were bailing ourselves out of a leaking boat. We had this strategy where one person would push the water into the plastic bin—teamwork! Or we would use towels to soak up the water and wring it over each other’s heads. Our baths were a workout.
So we lived in blissful, strenuous ignorance until we started going on vacations to Las Vegas and staying in hotels. Then we understood. Our baths were a joke! In Las Vegas, we could use as much water as we wanted because we weren’t paying the water bill. My dad would seem especially giddy and reckless in that land of vice, that air-conditioned oasis surrounded by hot, dry sand. He would fling the bathroom door open and announce: “I’ll even take two showers!” (And then not actually do it.)
Since then, I’ve had many years of living independently to recondition my habits. Now it seems perfectly normal to use many gallons of water every day just to clean myself. It seems only mildly indulgent to turn on the air conditioner and then snuggle in heavy blankets in the middle of summer. But when I visit my mom at home, all of this reconditioning has to be unconditioned. I return to my former self. In her house, I have to live by her rules.
So I had been forewarned about the dying lawn before I went back to visit recently. But I was still emotionally unprepared for what I would see after I landed at LAX. For one thing, all the trees in Los Angeles looked ill. They looked like they were sort of listing to one side in an effort to stay upright. I thought of dehydrated people teetering around in the desert, faces all yellow and ashy. Along the freeway I watched as clouds of dry soil coiled up into the air, an ominous reminder of the city’s original landscape. I will show you fear in a handful of dust. A watery mirage shimmered ahead on the hot road.
I took it all in, heart sinking. I used to feel nervous about the smog, the suffocating cloud of it descending during the week, then lifting briefly over the weekend. But this was a whole new sensation. When we pulled into our driveway, I saw that the two-story tall grapefruit tree that has always guarded our property had dropped all its shriveled fruit. Little mummified miscarriages. Its remaining leaves clung limply to the branches. I’d never seen anything like it.
“Are you not watering the tree?” I accused my mom with a panicked edge in my voice.
Mom sighed. “I water that grapefruit tree all the time,” she said sadly. “Still not enough.”
Inside the house, it was dark and quiet. The curtains were drawn to block out the heat of the afternoon sun, because mom doesn’t believe in air conditioning. It was too wasteful; she couldn’t justify it to herself. My dad was living in Taiwan and my sister lived in her own apartment in Koreatown. This was her new solitude. It was so quiet I could hear the clock ticking. Every corner had been touched by her survivalist temperament: thrifted furniture that looked like it belonged in a cabin, wrought from large hunks of wood to endure and endure. A half-knitted thing balanced on the arm of a sofa. And of course, all the buckets and basins.
That she would have jigged up an elaborate water-saving set-up involving all these buckets and basins should not have been a surprise, and yet, there I was, baffled. It had not yet dawned on me that her water-saving fervor had reached such a pitch. I hadn’t wondered what the basin was doing in the sink until I turned on the faucet to wash my hands. Mom yelped—“Ai yah!”—and rushed over to turn off the faucet. I had washed my hands in a way that did not allow the water to fall into the basin! She admonished. I was to wash my hands over the basin so that the water could be saved and then poured into the bucket resting on the floor.
Life, it seemed, had become an elaborate system of pouring liquids from one bucket to another bucket. If mom washed dishes, she would fill one basin with just a tiny bit of detergent, and another with clean water, wash and rinse, and then pour all the dirty water into a larger bucket. The water could water the plants. Or rinse out more bowls. Or flush the toilet. It was hard to keep track of.
“You know you can drink toilet water?” She exclaimed. “It’s the same water as for drinking!” She was defending herself because I asked if it was really worth it to haul the dirty dishwater bucket all the way to the bathroom to flush the toilet. “Why we flush the toilet with drinking water?” The idea of it offended her.
Travel-weary, I said I needed to take a shower. But could I just do it? The shower looked like it hadn’t been used in a long time. “Yes, yes take a shower!” She insisted, almost offended to be asked. I felt inordinately guilty. The showerhead sputtered from disuse, crusted over with mineral build-up. I did everything quickly, in less than three minutes.
That night, I lay awake thinking. I couldn’t sleep because it turns out mom didn’t believe in turning on the A/C for just two people either, so I lay flat on the bed with all my limbs outstretched like a starfish. Maximizing the surface area in order to get cool.
What was it that compelled her to save this way, when there were people out there shamelessly slinging water on their lawns, washing their cars, golfing on emerald turf, eating grass-fed beef and California almonds? Was it altruism? Was it some hippie love for the planet? She wasn’t rich, but she certainly wasn’t poor anymore either. There was no reason to be so extreme.
The next morning for breakfast, mom taught me about a new method for boiling eggs that required only a tiny bit of water. She heard about this method on NPR. Basically hard-boiled eggs can be cooked just as well by steaming them. So you put in just a tiny bit of water to cover the base of the pot, and—ta da! She had been enlightened and she was never going back. Suddenly the idea of filling up the pot and immersing the whole egg in water seemed crazy to her too.
So we ate our hard-steamed eggs with some instant oatmeal, which we microwaved. After breakfast, I put my dirty oatmeal bowl in the sink. Mom scraped hers clean and then put it in the freezer. When she opened the freezer door I saw there was also a small skillet in there with just the thinnest film of olive oil, looking as though it had been used to sautée something. Mom gestured proudly. “Look! Less dishes to do later!” She cackled, delighted by her own ingenuity.
I have to admit. I felt scared then. Now that my mom was living alone, all of her habits had radicalized dramatically, like she was a pioneer on her own homestead, out of touch with the outside world. She was developing her own language of logic. So I fought back.
“Mom. This is crazy. We have enough money for you to boil an egg like a normal person. And wash your skillet after you cook. Do you need money? I’ll give you money.”
Her face sank—I had deeply wounded her. She shot back: “This is not about money. California is in drought.”
We stood there in a standoff. I watched my mom, standing there in her defiant pose, wearing her favorite red flannel shirt from Goodwill, her stretchy hand-me-down jeans from her sister-in-law, her globe of self-cut hair protectively cushioning her head like a helmet. She was indestructible. She was survival itself. She started aggressively washing out my bowl in the basin. Yes, she had always been this fiercely independent person. Tough. She knew what she was about. But what was in her core that oriented all of her decisions and her actions?
As the week went on, we eased into each other’s habits. I found myself more aware of how much water I used on a daily basis. I began to feel guilty about how much I was drinking, eating, how I was using up space. My life shrunk dramatically. Then a week passed: it was time to go back to New York. I sat in my seat and felt bad about the carbon the plane would be emitting into the atmosphere. The plane lifted up in the sky. Down below, everything looked brown and diseased. I thought of my mom as a speck in all that brown land.
After a few minutes we were flying over the arid moonscape of Nevada. And then I suddenly remembered this one magical time when we’d gone to Las Vegas in my childhood. Through some computing fluke, we somehow ended up with a VIP Master Suite on top of the MGM. This was an insane luxury for my family at the time. We all staggered through the cool carpeted halls and into the brightly lit master bathroom. There was a marble Jacuzzi elevated on some kind of pedestal. Immediately, my sister and I filled that whole thing up and turned on the jets. For some reason we thought we had to wear swimsuits, because it suddenly felt like we were about to jump into a pool. The steamy cauldron roiled and seethed. When we got in we were tossed around like we were whitewater rafting. So much water! We tossed around in there until our fingers pruned up. After it was all over, we pulled the drain and watched as the water slurped into the void, creating a small whirlpool in its wake. Then it was all gone. I remember feeling sick.
I mourned that water. I’d wanted to clutch it to my chest and keep it forever. And yet this was one of the many experiences I would have throughout my childhood of the sensation of running out. We were never going to take this kind of bath again. If the possibility of running out was always present in my mind, then I knew it must have been exponentially more present for my parents. Water, money, food, the good graces of our neighbors: all of this might one day run out. The running out of these things seemed an imminent possibility that we were always just staving off.
But what would it mean for California to run out of water? Are we prepared to know what that possibility might feel like? California has less than one year of water left in its reservoirs. Thousands of wells have gone dry. Ancient water is being pumped out of the ground. And yet the debates rage on: there’s more to this drought than individual actions; it’s the state; it’s Big Agriculture; it’s wealthy people. We keep pointing in all directions, looking for somewhere to place the blame. And perhaps it still brings some solace to continue debating. Just like we would love to continue debating whether or not climate change is real. To continue debating means nobody has to do anything yet. We will keep debating until everything runs out.
Illustration by Jim Cooke