At some point during my toddler years, my mother decided that having two young children in diapers – my baby sister and me – was one child too many. Disposable diapers had recently become available. Mom, however, was never one to spend money needlessly and decided to stay with cloth, and I suspect this was mainly because they were more economical. But that meant that she was constantly washing and bleaching diapers. It was time for me to learn how to use the toilet.
My parents purchased a small training chair for me with a wood frame and a plastic bowl that fit under the hole in the seat. In order to encourage me to remain seated and take my time until I had taken care of business, my parents enlisted the help of a Sears catalogue – the kind they used to publish with a three-inch-thick spine – which they would set on my lap. The enormous weight of the tome, itself, may have played some part in anchoring me in place, but I would sit on that training toilet for an hour or more, busily flipping through the catalogue and looking at the pictures. One day, my parents took me to lunch at Burger King where I was given a cardboard crown to wear. Later, they snapped a photo of me sitting on the training toilet with a Burger King crown on my head, a Sears catalogue on my lap, and white training pants around my ankles. Not one of my proudest moments, but certainly one of theirs because they dragged this photo out often.
While I was growing up, we would frequently take vacation time and drive down to Georgia to visit some of my dad’s relatives. It was a long drive, and my sister and I would ride in the back seat of the car. We were too little to see much outside the window, and Mom always made sure we had things to do to help keep us occupied. But when you’re on the road for hours at a time for several days, there’s just so much coloring, reading, napping and fighting you can do.
My dad’s mother lived in Michigan, but she had grown up in Georgia where many of her relatives still lived. When we got to The Peach State, we would always stop by to visit her brother, Luther, who was a redhead. He was married to my Aunt Lillian, and they were friendly, smiling folk with thick, Georgia accents. No matter how hot and muggy the weather, Luther always wore long pants, long sleeves and a pith helmet to protect his skin from the damaging rays of the sun. Years of unprotected sun exposure had taken its toll on his skin, and now he had to visit the dermatologist on a regular basis to remove lesions before they turned cancerous.
When I was very little – maybe three or four years old – I remember being taken to an old, wooden plantation house with a wide, covered porch. An old lady sat on the porch on a rocking chair. She was my dad’s mother’s mother. I stared at her. She was so old! And she had a funny looking eye. “Grandma,” I said, “your eye looks funny.” She tossed back her ancient, wrinkled head and cackled loudly. Years later, I would learn that her “funny looking” eye was due to cataracts. I also learned that this particular grandma had a fondness for peach snuff. My aunt Shirley, my dad’s older sister, tells me that after a hit of nicotine, my great-grandmother was prone to spontaneous fits of dancing.
On our way to and from Georgia, we would make regular visits to state rest areas to use the toilet facilities. This posed a particular challenge for me and, as a result, for my poor, longsuffering parents, especially my mother. This was back in the early 1970s, and rest areas were placed in rural locations where plumbing wasn’t as readily available as in the city. Washrooms were fairly rudimentary with concrete flooring, stalls with doors and locks that always rattled, and toilet seats. None of the toilets flushed because they all fed directly into a giant, underground septic tank. You could look straight down and see a mass of blue septic solution, toilet paper, urine, floating turds, and pretty much anything else along those lines. The septic solution helped to dull the fetid odor somewhat, but there were flies everywhere, and it was quite disgusting.
I’m guessing I must have been a princess in a previous life and was accustomed to much fancier accommodations, because I took one look at the toilet I was expected to use and the detritus that floated ten to fifteen feet below, and I would have nothing to do with it. There was no way in hell I was going to sit my bare bottom atop that disgusting soup of human waste! What if something splashed up? What if I fell in? I didn’t even want to think about it.
“No!” I crossed my chubby little arms and shook my flaxen blond head done up in two curly pigtails.
“Suzanna, you have to go to the bathroom. This is where we do it,” my mother reasoned.
“But it’s not a real toilet!”
“It is. It’s just different than what you’re used to.”
“I don’t like the hole.”
“You won’t fall in. I promise.” I took another look. Like hell, I wasn’t!
My poor parents tried accommodating me every way they could. They offered to stop at the side of the road so I could go behind a bush. I refused on the grounds that this was even more barbaric than peeing in a toilet seat over a giant hole. I would hold the contents of my bladder until appropriate plumbing was available, and that was that. Somehow, we always managed to reach what I considered to be a suitable toilet before I had an accident. We went through this painful routine for years until I was finally old enough to not freak out at the notion of peeing into a giant, communal hole.
Years later, I accompanied my French Club on a ten-day trip to France during my senior year of high school. During our entire trip, we had a tour bus (with a small, cramped – but adequate – toilet) and a driver who drove us all over the country. His name was either Albert or Armand. He was very friendly and treated us extremely well. When our route took us close to where his family lived, my French teacher convinced him to take a detour so he could visit with them. Albert/Armand maneuvered his giant tour bus into a small, French suburb and parked on the street in front of his house. His wife and young children came out to greet us and insisted that all 30 of us disembark and share some refreshing beverages and snacks. After a wonderful afternoon, we all piled back into the bus and continued on our way.
During that visit to France, I encountered two things I had never seen before: a bidet and a Turkish toilet. Most of our hotel rooms were equipped with a bidet. I did end up using one, but not for its intended purpose. After a long day pounding the pavement performing my duty as an American tourist, I filled the bidet with hot water, sat on the toilet that was installed next to it, and soaked my aching feet in the bidet’s bowl.
Days later, I was exploring a town in the south of the country with a few other members of my group. The tour bus was far away, as were our hotel rooms, and my bladder was beginning to feel a bit of strain. We found a public washroom, I went inside and was confronted with something I had never seen before: a Turkish toilet.
A Turkish toilet is square or rectangular in shape. It’s a large basin set flush into the tiled floor like a shallow sink with a drain in the middle and two oval footrests, one on each side of the drain, rising up a couple of inches from the bottom of the basin. The idea is to place yourfeet on the footrests, hitch up your skirts, squat, and urinate into the middle of the basin, being careful not to moisten yourself or any of your clothing. Which works really well if you happen to be wearing a skirt with no underwear, and not so great if you’re wearing pants. And underwear.
I have this recurring dream in which I am desperate to use the toilet, but the only facilities I can find are filthy, and there’s no possible way I can take care of business without getting nasty, unmentionable substances on my clothing. I have a theory that this dream may originate from the shock I experienced at the sight of my first Turkish toilet. I was a middle-class kid from the United States who had grown up with indoor plumbing. Nothing in my life had prepared me for this. After staring at this thing for several minutes, I decided that there was no way this was going to happen. I would wait until a proper toilet presented itself. After all, I had been practicing for years.
After I moved to Houston for a job, I eventually found myself living in a house that had been built at the turn of the century. The toilet had begun to misbehave, so I called my landlord, who gave me the number of his plumber. Nick the Plumber was originally from Greece. He was middle aged, and friendly with a good sense of humor, and he spoke with a thick Greek accent like the dad in the movie “My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding.” Nick was also covered with a generous layer of black hair. His one gigantic eyebrow extended across the tops of both of his eyes like a furry caterpillar on steroids, and he wore thick, gold chains around his hairy neck. I couldn’t help but wonder how many times one of the chains got caught in the abundance of hair on his chest and pulled it out at the roots. Nick inspected the toilet, then began disassembling it, breathing hard, sweating profusely and gratefully gulping the glasses of cold water I offered him from my refrigerator because the weather was, as usual, hot and muggy. Eventually, he arrived at a verdict: Not only had the seal at the base of the toilet broken, but water had leaked out and damaged the surrounding wood. That entire section of the floor would need to be rebuilt.
As the implications of this began to sink in, I realized that I would be without a working toilet for at least several days, and maybe more. I decided it was time to suck it up and stop being such a princess. Speaking of princesses, I realized that if Queen Elizabeth II – then known as Princess Elizabeth – could work on engines, and drive ambulances and other trucks in a war-torn Britain during the Second World War, I sure as hell could poop in a bucket for a few days!
“I’m very sorry, but you’ll be without a commode,” Nick said. For some reason, Nick preferred the word “commode” over “toilet,” which I thought somewhat charming.
“That’s okay,” I said, having already come to that conclusion on my own.
“But you won’t have a commode. For several days.” Nick seemed to think that perhaps I wasn’t fully understanding the situation.
“That’s fine. I’ll manage.”
“But what will you do without a commode?” At this point, Nick seemed more bothered by my lack of toilet facilities than I was.
“I’ll use a bucket!”
Nick stared at me for a few seconds. He looked shocked. Then, apparently unable to process the nonchalant way in which I accepted the fact that I would have to resort to using a bucket as a toilet, he shook his head, probably deciding I was beyond help, and got back to whatever he’d been doing.
And poop in a bucket, I did! I borrowed some of the cats’ litter to help absorb the moisture and the odor, and after a couple of days, using a bucket as a commode was a piece of cake!
In 2008, I finally returned to France. I visited Paris with my sister, and we walked the streets of that city until our feet bled. I wound up with a blister on the back of my heel as large as an avocado. On our last day, we were exploring Montparnasse Cemetery to the south of the city. I had to use the toilet, we were too far from our hotel, and my situation was becoming dire. I approached a caretaker in a shack to the north of the cemetery and asked him if there were any toilets nearby. He pointed to a small building not thirty feet away. We hurried over. I ducked inside, then reemerged seconds later. My sister was standing outside waiting for me and looking confused.
“It’s a Turkish toilet,” I stated grimly.
“Uh-oh,” she said. She knew all about my last confrontation with one of these.
I took a deep breath, eyed my sister determinedly, said, “This may take a while,” and darted back inside.
I stood facing the Turkish toilet. It was clean, and there was a roll of pink toilet paper on a shelf to my left. As before, I was wearing pants. Unlike before, there was no way I was going to be able to hold the liquid inside my bladder until I could get to the kind of toilet to which I was accustomed. I was going to have to make this work. Somehow. Oh, to be a man right now, I thought wistfully. I could just unzip my pants, whip it out and have done with it.
Except I wasn’t a man. I was a woman. And I didn’t have time to lament the structure of my reproductive biology because I had to go! I needed to focus so I could figure out how to get the job done without splattering myself in the process. I quickly settled on a dropped-trouser position in which I squatted mostly facing outwards, holding my pants forward with one hand to avoid getting them wet, and using my other arm to lean against the back wall so I didn’t fall. It was a yoga pose like no other. It wasn’t graceful, it wasn’t attractive, but it worked, and that’s all that mattered. In no time, at all, I was walking back outside to my sister, a grin of triumph on my face. I had conquered the beast: I had successfully urinated in a Turkish toilet.
Just like with that Turkish toilet, sometimes you encounter an old foe after many years, and it’s not so daunting, anymore. I went camping a while back, and was telling my dad about the toilet facilities.
“Hey, Dad. Remember those giant septic tanks in the ground? That’s what they had for toilets at this camp ground.”
“Did you use them?”
“Of course, I did! I’m not 4 years old, anymore. I even peed in the woods!”
“You’re kidding me!”
“Nope! I have a mosquito bite on my right butt cheek.”
“The trouble you put your mother and me through…”
“Yeah, I know. I’m really sorry about that. I was a weird little kid.
“You still are.”
“Well, Mr. Tree, meet your apple.”