Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Flushed With Pride

I grew up with the standard models: white, shiny ceramic, with metal lever flush. But throughout my childhood, another toilet was always on my mind: the one my mother grew up with.

"You have no idea how lucky you kids are, having an indoor toilet that flushes," she would frequently remind us. She never said this in a You spoiled brats! spirit, though I'm sure she was tempted to, just as I am tempted to say the same whenever I hear my kids whining about computer glitches and I remember having to pound out term papers on a dodgy, sticky-keyed secondhand manual typewriter which weighed a ton.  On the coldest days in Southern California, whenever we complained about the temperature, my mother would recall the winters of her childhood -- particularly the snowy backyard that had to be crossed to reach the outhouse. A Sears & Roebuck's catalogue always  hung from a rusty nail inside, recycling being a necessity of life instead of the virtuous, ecologically-minded practice that it is today. On Halloween night, you had to be on guard for jokers who liked moving outhouses just a few feet beyond the pit. Anyone who wasn't vigilant paid a terrible price in those days before plumbed bathtubs with instant hot water. During the  night, foul-smelling chamberpots were kept under beds, although they weren't called that; they were referred to as 'vessels'.

Having heard my mother's stories, my sisters and I realized that we benefited from state-of-the-art, lifestyle-enhancing, modern technology: no emptying and cleaning out of nasty vessels, no traversing dark obstacle-course ridden yards to get to a smelly outhouse; all we had to do was pad down the hallway, do what had to be done, and flush.

A few trips to rural Mexico and Guatemala only increased my sense of gratitude. There's nothing like waking up in the middle of the night out in the middle of  nowhere, and having to pay for your last (much regretted) cup of tea with a long, scary tramp through onion fields,  past barking dogs to get to the privy, which you could probably locate blindfolded, so horrific is the smell.

In Japan, my first toilet was a standard Asian squat-style number, perfectly easy to get used to, but not for anybody with weak knees or a poor aim. Over my years there, I had a succession of similar toilets, and most of them required squatting, even the ones in posh office buildings. Some of our office toilets were unisex too, and it took me some time to develop the sang-froid necessary to walk past my boss, feigning ignorance of  his presence, and casually enter one of the stalls. Some emptied into septic tanks which periodically had to be emptied by a foul-smelling truck that made the rounds of the neighborhood, with a wide, coiled  hose attached to the side. But they all flushed.

In Cyprus, we had a  modern flush toilet too, but there was not always enough water to flush it with. With three teenage girls in our flat, we always seemed to run out of water quickly, so my husband and I soon learned to fill plastic bottles with water from the nearby swimming pool for emergency situations. My very first day of teaching, I went off to work after a quick, unsatisfactory sponge bath with pool water and I was grateful that our school had a bathroom. But the university toilets used to run out of water occasionally too, so  I took to recycling the water from the students' plastic bottles.

In the Netherlands, I lived in an artists' colony for half a year. Every week it was my turn to clean our communal toilet -- an ancient old thing with a chain you pulled, but nevertheless a flush toilet. The first few weeks there, I was puzzled by a jam jar filled with water which was always on the left side of the toilet, on the floor. One day, someone emptied it and threw it away, and I learned its function when another artist, a Dutch-Indonesian woman, protested. "It has a hygienic purpose," she told me. "It does what paper alone cannot, and if it is not there, I feel very uncomfortable."  I've adopted this custom, and although I'm sure guests here wonder what a pitcher of water is doing on our bathroom floor, I wouldn't be without it.

That pitcher of water froze the other night. We can only afford to heat two rooms, the kitchen and our living room, and our bathroom is like a freezer. When it's below zero inside, getting up in the middle of the night to do what has to be done is a character-building test that takes great courage and fortitude. But I tell myself that all I have to cross is a carpeted floor, not a cold, dark farmyard, that I'll never have to empty or scrub out a 'vessel', and all I have to do is flush -- with gratitude and pride.


Vijaya said...

Ahem, you managed to write what I've never been able to. I too, am grateful for flush toilets (my grandmother's farm had an outhouse, and we only had running water one hour a day in our home). To this day, even though we have no babies in the house, we splurge on baby wipes.

Lisa Shafer said...

I grew up in a family that loved camping, so coffee can toilets were common fare for me until I had sturdy enough legs for squatting. For the *ahem * lengthier restroom needs, I learned the value of hanging one's hindquarters over a low tree branch to save the calf muscles extra strain. A campground with an outhouse was a big plus -- even though the water spigot was a hike for handwashing.

Yeah, I've used a few of those Asian and European squatty potties, too. I like to think of them as shower stalls that flush.

My mom didn't have an indoor toilet in her house until she was about 6. They had an outhouse and chamber pots. Dad recalls being about 13 or so before enjoying indoor plumbing.

Adrienne said...

I have to confess, bathroom upgrades are pretty far up on my wish list right now...I've had waaay too much practice with the plumber's snake lately. But it always helps to keep things in perspective!

Angela Ackerman said...

Brrr! Fortitude indeed.

Growing up out on the farm it terrified me to have to go to the bathroom...who knew what might get me on the way to the outhouse?

Kit said...

I can see that I've been totally spoilt with taking flush toilets and soft loo paper for granted! We came across footprint squat toilets for the first time on holidays to France and were horrified!

On the other hand maybe we should all be reverting to the old non-flushing toilets to conserve water...?!!!

Charles Gramlich said...

We had a flush toilet when I was a kid and a gas stove in the bathroom. However, when we went to the local town picnics and gatherings there was only an outhouse so I got experience using one. I remember the hornets and wasps you'd have to deal with in summer. And the cold, of course, in winter. And catalogs. good old catalogs.

Donna Earnhardt said...

Oh Mary... your post reminds me of the stories my treataunt used to tell me about her time growing up with an outhouse. My mom has told me about her aunt, too, and how she had to use their outhouse when she visited. It was away from the house. And in the middle of the night, she couldn't stand the thoughts of sitting in the unlit outhouse!

I am glad you have a flushing toilet, now. YAY for modern convenience!

(and thank you for stopping by and commenting on my darling's poem. I'd send you some tacos if I could!)

Pat said...

My Gran had an ancient flushless loo in the yard and it's a wonder I don't have chronic constipation because I couldn't 'go' there which meant Gran would give me cod liver oil or an enema.
There was always a pitcher of water in the loos in India.
Pos were the norm - under the bed - in my childhood. The only smell I remember was pungent tobacco in the grown up's room there would be a decomposing fag afloat.
I have a theory that 'po' pronounced like 'Oh' came from WW1 soldiers who had served in France and heard the warnings of chamber maids as they emptied the 'pot' in the street below.

Anonymous said...

So now I have a name for the squeeze bottle I keep in the bathroom--it's a Scotch bidet.

Kim Ayres said...


Mary Witzl said...

Vijaya -- Toilets are a huge part of our lives -- and they help keep us humble.

In Japan, my husband and I stayed at an inn with an outhouse, but it was amazingly clean and pleasant. But we were there in the early autumn; I hate to think of what it was like there in winter. I'll keep my flush toilets too, and pass the baby wipes!

Lisa -- I'll have to try that low tree branch trick. There are walks around here right in the middle of nowhere, but there are always trees around -- and I've never thought of the use they could be put to, so thanks for that tip.

My mother first experienced indoor plumbing at the house of a woman her sister was cleaning for. Apparently, she didn't know what the chain was for, and engaged in a hushed, frantic conversation with my aunt through the bathroom door. The magic and luxury of it thrilled her.

Adrienne -- Isn't that the most horrible job? You just can't believe what -- well, never mind. I've done it too, and while I've got a very strong stomach, it has been sorely tested by toilet trials.

Angela -- So you've had outhouse experience too -- good for you. They're not warm and fuzzy places, but they definitely give you good stories to tell your kids one day.

Kit -- Those footprint squat toilets in France would be okay if they just kept them cleaner -- but at least you don't have to sit on them.

We had friends in Southern Japan who had a non-flush toilet that was virtually smell-free; it emptied automatically when what was deposited in it attained a certain weight. Beer drinkers used to have amusing competitions about how many times they could get it to empty in one go.

Charles -- Did you get black widow spiders there too? I remember an outhouse we had to use once that was full of black widows, which we were told lived right under the seat. I thought it was a joke, but one day a nurse who worked in an emergency room assured me that the most people stung by black widows had it happen in outdoor toilets. That hardly made the experience any more pleasant or relaxing.

Donna -- My kids squawk at having to walk through a chilly house to go to a frigidly cold bathroom which is still luxury standard compared to my mother's outhouse experience. We're all spoiled rotten, but I hope we get to stay that way when it comes to flush toilets.

Pat -- I'd definitely been given my share of cod liver oil too, and I don't want to think of how my kids would react.

A friend in Japan once told me that women used to be expected to give birth in the outhouses, in some areas -- that the process of having a baby was so messy, they weren't supposed to do it in the house. I believe I'd have remained childless if I knew the same was expected of me.

Anne -- From now on, whenever guests come to visit, I will invite them to use our Scotch bidet.

My father-in-law had a bidet in his house which he never used, and which he kept as spotless as the rest of his house. We used it to wash socks in, so it wasn't a total waste.

Kim -- No, don't shudder -- just flush!

Marcia said...

I guess such is human nature that, no matter how well off we become, there'll be something to moan about. Although I tend to forgive those who complain about technology. There's an awful lot of it that doesn't work like it's supposed to.

My mom grew up with a flush toilet, but the bathroom in which it resided was more like an enclosed back porch. You came in the back door -- and there was the commode. And there was no tub, which I'm sure is why she's always considered sponge baths perfectly fine.

Uma Krishnaswami said...

Oh how many memories does this post bring back?! I grew up in urban, flush-toilet India, and have vivid memories of the outhouse when we visited relatives in the "mofussil." Palm-thatched roof, creepy-crawlies rustling around overhead, no flush, a single light-bulb dangling down and casting unpredictable shadows everywhere....oh, it's all coming back to me!

Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane said...

Oh, I love your toilet stories! My mother grew up with an outdoor privy and she used to say that in the winter she loved the feeling of coming back inside the warm house, a joy I would never know because I was lucky to grow up with an indoor toilet with a drawstring ;)

Having traveled and lived overseas I've seen it all, the good, the bad and the really really filthy.

Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane said...

And I want to thank all your commenters for their contributions. They are a hoot to read!

And as an aside: As I write this I have my cleaning lady here (in Moldova, where I live now) and she is cleaning my three toilets, three bidets and one urinal, all upscale and flushable, and heated.

I know what you are thinking, but really it's not a mansion at all but it's the house I ended up with here, and really you should see it! It was designed by a clueless man and the kitchen is tiny tiny. Enough said.

Mary Witzl said...

Uma -- Your relatives' toilet may sound spooky, but you've got to admit it has more character and intrigue than a plain old flush toilet in a suburban house -- and it had to be impressive: the memory has stayed with you. (Having said that, I'm sure glad it isn't MY toilet!) The worst toilet experiences I've had were out in the sticks, in Mexico and Guatemala. It's no fun to have to shut yourself up in a tiny, filthy room out in the pitch dark, with cockroaches zinging around your head.

My mother would have been impressed by the single light bulb, though. The house she grew up in didn't have electric lights until shortly before the war.

Miss Footloose -- You could write the book about toilets, having lived in all the interesting places you've lived in. My husband spent two years in North Africa and has travelled around East Asian; he has dozens of hair-raising, retch-worthy toilet stories. By comparison, I know mine are pretty tame, but I'm hoping to add to my collection. ;)

One of my most egalitarian, hard-working friends had a cleaning lady when she lived in central Africa. When she was first asked if she wanted one, she said no quite emphatically. After a few months, she gave in and got one: she couldn't kill all the bugs and other pests by herself.

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