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.