Superhero Plunge

My mother was born much too late to be a Victorian but she never once, in all the time I knew her, wore anything but a dress. No pants, no jeans, certainly no shorts. An earlier era’s propriety had its grip on her. (She was also affectionate, occasionally hilarious, and a wonderful storyteller.)

Because of my mother’s preoccupation with politeness, I was raised in a family where anything related to human elimination went unspoken. (For example, intestinal gas was neither heard nor discussed. Only once, when behind a closed door we heard my father’s gas amplified by the toilet bowl, did my mother acknowledge it, saying, “Poor Daddy doesn’t feel well.” We all hung our heads to acknowledge misery so great it could be heard.)

Still, the shadow wants to be known. Perhaps that’s why our bathroom rebelled. Faucets leaked and toilets gurgled in the night as if ghostly hands pulled on the handles. And far too often, the toilet seemed unwilling to swallow our refuse. A few wipes, a flush, and suddenly the angry toilet’s water would rise in an increasingly threatening manner to tremble at the top of the bowl. Sometimes, sheets of water cascaded onto the clean tile floor. I developed a terror of mutinous toilets pretty early in life.

The plunger was of no use to me because, as a child, I didn’t have enough arm strength to create the necessary suction. I learned to grab the toilet brush and clear the toilet’s unwilling throat any time it seemed to swirl a moment longer than usual.  If that didn’t work, I’d cry out in desperation, “Mom, the toilet is overflowing!”

Keep in mind, before I was in first grade, my mother taught me to set a proper table with salad fork, entrée fork, table knife, butter knife, and spoon. She taught me to “sit like a lady” when company visited. She taught me to write thank you notes; always say “please” and “thank you;” and when treated badly, to “kill them with kindness.”

But she was no cliché. My mother broke records in school with her high grades. She broke rules as an RN to better serve her patients. And when our toilet threatened to overflow, my mother morphed into some kind of superhero. No matter where in the house she was, she responded to my cry before I finished the first syllable. I swear she flew through the air, arriving in time to grab the plunger and heartily convince the toilet to behave itself.

(In her last years, she used a walker to get around. Even then, my children were amazed to witness their grandmother levitate to their sides at the mere hint of trouble and unclog the toilet before a single germ-laden drop of water touched her floor. )

I grew up and moved out into a world where my mother could not unclog threatening situations for me. This became obvious when I took my own precious two-year-old to the bathroom in someone’s home. It was a lovely home, with a bathroom far more precious than bathrooms I normally frequented. Everything was stark and shining. I wiped my toddler’s adorable bottom to find that he had, somehow, crapped out a substance thick and unwipeable as tar. I ruminated on what he’d eaten as I cleaned him up, lifted his adorableness from the toilet and flushed it, then pulled up his tiny underbritches and tiny pants.

The toilet rebelled in a slow, menacing way. Water swirled. It rose. It made no gurgling digestive noises as toilets do to let us know our digestion is being taken care of. I felt the hamster wheel of panic start twirling in my chest. I looked for a toilet brush or plunger, but of course this fashionable bathroom did not display such utilitarian tools. Water rose even higher. I could picture it trembling at the lip of the bowl, then pouring out onto the beautiful floor as I fled with my child — ruination flooding out the door behind us.

Every cell in my body wanted to cry out, “Mom, the toilet is overflowing!”

My mother was nowhere in sight.

I saw no other choice. In one rapid move, I pulled up my sleeve and plunged my arm into the icy depths. I grabbed the offending clog away from the opening. The water happily swirled down. With a gurgle, everything was gone.

I washed my arm ferociously as I assured my child that, no, he should never put his hand into a toilet. It was Mama’s job and only in an emergency. I did not tell him that he should never speak of it again, lest that might inspire him to announce it to everyone for months.

It has been a very long time since I was forced to commit this act. I still remember the icy plunge, but I don’t remember the horror. Instead I remember realizing that it was up to me.

I was the Mama. It was time to be the superhero.

31 thoughts on “Superhero Plunge

  1. Hilarious – My Mom must be from that same school of thought. I remember when she told us “got” was not really a very good word, and we were reminded frequently to stand up straight and hold in the stomach. 🙂

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    • My mother gave up trying to prompt us to say “yes” instead of “yeah” when she caught herself saying “yeah” too many times. It was a slippery slope after that. I believe by her late 70’s we got her to swear once or twice. It was a grand victory.

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  2. My mother was of the same ladylike disposition (outwardly, at least), and I never saw her in pants either, my whole life. But far from being reticent about toilet issues, she had a dreadful tendency to snort with laughter at the smallest hint of toilet humour, and relegated cleaning and dealing with ‘the gurgler’ to us at a very young age, on the basis that we were too young to have developed adult distaste for the thing and all its works. I guess she had a point, because I’m the only person I know who wouldn’t hesitate to dive after something precious dropped down a toilet. What’s to fear down there? After all, until just a few minutes ago, that lot was *inside you*! No, Ma’s superpowers were quite different, and I learned a lot from her in the field of making a polite but insistent and very, very direct complaint…

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      • I have trouble with No, but I can complain like a champion. The Husband can be seen visibly cringing when I get up a head of steam, knowing there’s going to be a face-off. He doesn’t do complaining face to face, he saves it up and then explodes at home, reserving the fallout for me! My way is better. The trick is to start with a question: “I have a question for you. (Smile, with or without menace) Is it your policy to ……. ?” (Go for whammy). If possible, I like to write it out first to set the killer adjectives in my mind. I’ve had over $1,000 wiped off an erroneous phone bill by virtue of persistent, accurate and take-no-prisoners complaining.

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        • I would take a class if you’d offer one, dear Kate.

          I have had my moments, at least when pressed to the extreme. My daughter was chronically ill in her early years and I took serious exception to the way hospital staff handled testing. I wrote a very civil letter to the administration, citing research that approved of letting parents stay with young children to reduce stress. I got no reply, but years later when we visited yet another specialist he said, “Oh, you’re the one who wrote THE LETTER” and pulled it out of my daughter’s file. Apparently it had made an impact. So I can rabble rouse when necessary.


      • It may be worth mentioning that that set of symptoms from a toilet usually stem from a non-functioning plumbing vent (2″ – 3″ pipe stack through the roof). Easy fix if clogged, harder if it’s missing…

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        • Thanks Scott. The people who bought my parent’s house completely redid everything and I bet those toilets work just fine. And I married a man brilliant in many ways, including the ability to maintain things so they don’t clog, break, stall, or collapse. I remain endlessly grateful that the world includes people like him and like you.

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  3. I couldn’t help laughing at certain parts but this story reinforces the point of how moms are superheroes even if no one else notices, especially where our children are concerned. It seems that you inherited your mother’s knack for storytelling…always has me looking forward to your posts.

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  4. Hilarious. And I can relate so well, although I won’t tell you my own stories so soon after breakfast 😉 Also I am like your mother insofar as only wearing dresses, but that’s because I’m very short and can never find pants in stores that don’t need to be taken up several inches first. But I had a swag of grandmothers who never wore pants – on the other side, my Nana was very stylish in trousers – so I guess I was influenced in part by them. Now I find pants so uncomfortable I don’t know why anyone ever wears them.

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    • First off, I am captured by the phrase “swag of grandmothers.” You, my author friend, write compellingly even in a short comment.

      Second, I reveal my severe unfashionableness by confessing that I am currently wearing comfortably baggy pants that were sold as capri pants, but I am so short that they are full-length on me.

      Third, I do agree dresses are more comfy. When my kids were very small I wore soft, faded dresses through many of my ordinary days. Not sure why I don’t anymore. (I strongly identified with your post about not wearing exactly what you choose —dreamy dresses and lacy shawls and lovely hats.) Perhaps I need to get back to comfy dresses, in which I can swish around like grandmothers of yore.


  5. You remind me of when my sister caught her younger son’s vomit in her cupped hands because they were at McDonald’s and there was no time to do anything else. As she said to me, “I didn’t even think about it — it was just the thing I had to do.”

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