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Ghosts from Christmas Past

Searching for a lesson in the frozen water pipes

Last Christmas was the roughest Christmas I have ever had. I don’t want to blame you, frontier North Dakota, but I am.

Let me set the scene for you.

My baby girl was four weeks old. My husband had spent four weeks in survival mode, keeping our five year and 18 month old boys occupied while I focused on keeping our baby alive. The team effort was enormous. We were exhausted.

The morning of Christmas Eve, my husband and I cooked a few dishes for a dinner at a friend’s house. I made potatoes for 20, he made a slew of pies, and the sticky dishes stacked higher and higher in the sink. While we cooked, we threw scraps of food in the direction of our boys who were, by the sounds of it, dumping every toy we owned into the middle of their bedroom.

Between steps in the recipe I stopped to feed and rock the baby.
Needless to say, the house looked like the scene of a college frat party. Only, instead of beer bottles laying around, there were rolled up poopy diapers, sour bottles, dumped toys, dirty (poopy) baby clothes and sticky dishes. Do we call that a baby rager?

We left for the dinner at 3 p.m. and had a great evening, staying out until bedtime.

When we got home, Danny carried the sleepy kids one by one into bed and I decided to get a load of dishes washing before getting to the work of Santa Claus.

I turned on the kitchen faucet and nothing happened. Confused, I walked into the bathroom and tried that faucet. A sad sputter and then nothing.

As I looked around it dawned on me – frozen pipes.

I heard stories of frozen pipe, but it had never happened to us. Christmas Eve had a low of -20 degrees that day, and it was our turn.

Danny came downstairs and we tried to problem solve. We had quite a bit of stored water, thankfully, and there didn’t appear to be much we could do that night, so we spread Santa’s gifts in our front room and went to bed.

The next two days are a blur. We spent Christmas surrounded by dirty dishes and dirty clothes, brushing our teeth with bottled water. The empty unit next door still had their water so Danny carried a seven-gallon garbage can back and forth, filling it with water at the neighbor’s and refilling our toilet tanks throughout the day. We stared at the thermometer, willing it to rise.

I believe that I kept my cool pretty good that day.

As renters, we were in touch with our property managers who said that, basically, the whole complex had frozen water and they would be around with heaters to pop the water lines eventually.

That evening, the neighbor unit froze – taking with it water for our toilets.

In desperate need of baths, with toilets full and no more clean dishes to use, we were a sorry bunch. We did our best with bottled water and baby wipes. We went to bed that night with a distinct ripe smell-cloud hovering over our home. I believe that is when the panic started to set in for me.

Sometime the next day, the maintenance workers for our complex showed up and started to get to work on our pipes. Danny was back at work and I tried to keep the kids out of their way.

After hours of loud heaters blowing in the garage, I heard a glorious *pop* and sputter coming from our faucets. The water started flowing and I did the happy dance.

The guys packed up their things and left and I immediately turned to the mess. I was tired. I was stressed out. My baby was needy. My boys were neglected. We were all smelly. All I could think of though, was getting those dishes clean.

I worked for hours. Panicked that the pipes would freeze again. I wanted to reset our home. Dishes, laundry, floors, baths, in that order. Let’s not forget that I was four weeks postpartum – still bleeding, sore crusty breasts from feeding my baby and did I mention that I was tired?

As I worked, my baby fussed. She needed to be fed. She needed me to stop cleaning, but I was a woman on a mission. I madly did the dishes, hand washing anything that didn’t fit in the dishwasher while running loads of laundry. When I finished mopping the floors, from the front door all the way through the dining room and the kitchen, baby girl’s cry had reached crisis level and I laid the mop down and turned to my girl.

Sweaty, I had shed my clothes sometime during the frenzied cleaning and was wearing only underwear and a robe. I smelled so bad, but baby didn’t care as she nestled into me. I unlatched my nursing bra and she started to feed.

Sitting there, taking a deep breath and staring at my beautiful baby, quiet for the first time in hours, there was a loud thump in the wall.

Then, I heard water running. A lot of water.

Confused, I stood up with my baby still connected and went to investigate. As I went around the corner I saw water gushing out of the vent in the ceiling above my entryway.

Icy cold water streamed over my feet and the water level on the wall rose as I stood, stunned. In horror, all I could think was – MY CLEAN FLOORS!!!

I set my, now screaming, baby in her bed and called the emergency maintenance phone number.

“I need someone over here now! Water is coming out of my ceiling!” I yelled into the phone.

“Okay, we will be over there as soon as we can,” the voice answered nonchalantly.

Angry that the severity of the situation didn’t seem to register with the man on the other end, I hung up and called my husband. He walked me through the steps to turn off the water to the house. I then started clearing out all of the things stuffed into the huge front closet. Everything in there was soaked.

Realizing that my feet were freezing as I ran through the standing water, I threw on rain boots.

Water seeped into my dining room, soaking my rug and made its way toward the carpet of the front room. I ran back and forth from the closet to the couch carrying soaking wet coats, a vacuum, board games and a million other things. The water had slowed but still dripped down from the ceiling.

The baby was wailing and the little boys came out to see what the chaos was. Soon, they were in the icy cold water and I was yelling for them to get back upstairs to no avail.

The doorbell rang and I swung open the door to two maintenance men. They stood there in the cold and hesitated. I quickly shooed them inside and continued on.
As I got the last things out of the closet and unplugged my Christmas tree that was now standing in water, they cut a hole in the ceiling and set up a ladder. Drops rained from the ceiling. I went back to my baby.

It is in that moment that I realized what I was wearing – an open robe with an unlatched nursing bra, granny panties and rain boots. That is all my friends.

Tying my robe shut, I grabbed the baby and the boys and went upstairs, sending Danny a text message to “COME HOME NOW!”

I finally plopped into the recliner in the baby’s room and started to cry. Not a muffled weep, mind you, but a wail. I sobbed and heaved and let out a stream of ungodly noises  North Dakota had broken me.
I was cold and embarrassed, tired and smelly. My boys patted me on the back and my baby cried with me.

As the men downstairs tracked mud up and down my once clean floors, I felt very little hope that we would have water again any time soon.

Now, I get it, first world problems and everything, but I have not been raised to know one thing about frozen pipes and no water. I mentally started packing a bag to go to a hotel. I had absolutely no faith that anyone could save me and I needed a shower.

All in all we were without water for four days. The pipe was repaired and water flowed again in the Ryan household. We lost water three more times last year despite our best efforts (and hundreds of dollars) invested into keeping the garage heated and our faucets on. (For some reason, the builder’s plan to put a water heater in an un-insulated garage in North Dakota did not work out well).

So now, as the temperature drops and Christmas gets nearer, you can’t blame me for the feeling of impending doom I am fighting.

But, my baby is a year older now and so am I. I lived through that horrendous ordeal. And, I bet, if it happened again I would deal with it a bit better than I did the last time. That is how life and crisis go. Your hardships give you confidence to tackle the next worst thing. I regularly say to myself, if I can get through that, I can deal with this.

So Merry Christmas and Ho, Ho, Ho and let us all pray for running water this holiday season.


Written by Betsy Ryan


Betsy Ryan resides in Watford City and is a recent transplant to Western North Dakota. She is learning to navigate her new landscape along with her husband and their two boys. Betsy writes for the McKenzie County Farmer and also shares her experiences in North Dakota on her blog,

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