Sunday, September 4, 2011

Marry Him for the Toilet

David's grandma is a talker.  She has a sharp mind, a remarkable memory, a lot of opinions, and plenty to say about everything.  Sometimes her comments seem to come out of the blue, such as last night when (apropos of nothing) she patted David's grandpa on the knee and then announced loudly, "Well, I know one thing about Gene.  I've never had to use an outside toilet since I married him."

This is the sort of remark that makes you kind of blink and wonder if you heard her right.

But it's true--she grew up in a house that didn't have indoor plumbing, so all their business took place in an outhouse.  And marrying Gene meant moving away from home and stepping in the world of indoor toilets and running water.  Now keep in mind, this was 1958, so really this was long overdue and much of the world had been peeing inside for years, decades even.  But Peggy's family was old school--Ozark mountain folk, scratching out a living from hard work and true grit.

Peggy was the youngest of six kids--and a total surprise to her mother, who thought she was finished having kids a decade earlier.  She was 42 when Peggy was born.  The older kids (three brothers and two sisters) were nearly grown by the time Peggy came along.  The youngest of them, Boyd, was eleven years old when Peggy was born, and the others were all teenagers.  ("Oh, but I was a good surprise," Peggy said with a smile.)

She grew up on a farm outside a small town in Southwest Missouri (and talks with the Ozark twang to prove it).  She remembers her mom working hard all the time, busy with farm and household chores.  Her daily uniform was a cotton dress with an apron--Peggy never saw her wear a pair of pants.  With two older sisters who doted on her, Peggy grew up being cared for by her sisters, especially Marie, who was thirteen when Peggy was born.

And she grew up using an outhouse.  And drawing up water up from a well near the porch (the porch was also where they bathed when it was warm outside).  They had a washing machine for laundry, but it was gas-powered and required constant attention.  You had to feed the clothes through the ringer and into the rinse water, then back through the ringer before you hung them up to dry.  The laundry water was then used by her mom to wash the floors of the front and back porch.  Because she didn't let anything go to waste.  Even dirty laundry water.

They didn't have electricity at home until she was a sophomore in high school.  She did homework by gaslight lamps.

The door locked with rope looped around a hook (just like Little House on the Prairie!).  In fact, David's mom remembers that rope lock from when she visited her grandma in the 1960s.  Because if it ain't broke you don't fix it (and evidently a good rope lock doesn't break).

There was no refrigerator, and not even an icebox for a long time.  "How did you save stuff?" David asked incredulously, because his grandma is still notorious for not letting anything go to waste.  Her refrigerator is currently stuffed with carefully labeled leftovers (in repurposed butter dishes and whipped cream containers, naturally), all ready to be reheated and eaten later.

Peggy laughed and explained that whatever they fixed for dinner (read: lunch--this was the big meal of the day on the farm) could be heated back up and eaten again for supper (read: dinner).  Otherwise there was no storing leftovers, so everybody cleaned their plates.

(This explains a little something about why she still pressures me to make several trips to the Chinese buffet, insisting that I need to "get your money's worth!" which apparently means stuffing myself with crab rangoon to the point of discomfort.)

"What about milk?" I asked, assuming they at least had an ice box or cooler or something.

Nope.  Milk was put in ceramic jugs, which were stored in the cold water stream that ran through her brother Basil's property.  (Isn't that adorable?  I mean, I know it must have been a pain in the ass in real life, but it seems so romantic to me, this idea of pulling a jug of milk out from a cold water stream and drinking it.  And I don't even like milk.)

After all this information, I was still trying to wrap my mind around the idea of having to use a freaking outhouse, so I asked what she did if she had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.  "Well," she said, "We had a pot."  In fact, David's mom still has that pot.  She has flowers planted in it.  (I have mixed feelings about this.)

My favorite story might be the one about her family going to visit some friends who lived at the top of a very steep hill.  Her dad had a new car he was very proud of (he'd traded for it, because this was a bartering society), and the family had all piled in the new Ford to go on this visit.  Once they got to the hilly stretch of road approaching their friends' house, they ran into a bit of a problem.  The car could easily zoom downhill with everybody in it, but but once they started up the incline, everybody had to climb out of the car and WALK up to the top of the hill, before climbing back in to ride down, because the car couldn't make up a steep hill if it was full of passengers.  I just love that image of all of them dressed up to go visiting, hopping in and out of the car and hiking up the hills as they drove.

As I turn on my laptop and log on to the wireless internet at his grandparents' house, with all of its climate-controlled creature comforts, including a big screen hi-def television, and all the kitchen gadgets, and a bathroom with a whirlpool tub, it's hard to believe that his grandma lived (not so very long ago, really) in a house with no electricity and no indoor plumbing.

So today you might want to take a moment to be grateful when you flip on the light and pee in your air conditioned bathroom.  After all, that business could require a hike to the outhouse.  At least until you were lucky enough to marry your way into indoor plumbing.


  1. I can definetly appreciate the sentiment. No matter what happens, I won't have to "use the outhouse". Awesome story, she sounds like a wonderful lady.

  2. If I remember correctly, my paternal grandparents still had an outhouse on their farm when I was very little. When I was about 6, they built a new house with indoor plumbing. But the outhouse was still there for some years afterward, out back, & I also remember going to outhouses at cottages, etc.

    A few years ago, we were at a family picnic at an outdoor park, & several of us went to the washrooms. The facilities weren't palatial & they were well used, so they weren't exactly pristine... but they weren't that bad either, IMHO. There WAS running water, and flush toilets, and toilet paper, & hot air hand dryers. Some of dh's cousins (born & raised in the city) were horrified. They obviously had never had to use a REAL outhouse. ; )

  3. What an amazing story! I'm reading "America's Women" and am totally amazed by how close together the generations really are and how wildly different things were when my grandparents were born (flappers! segregation!). I wonder how much will change before we are that age!

  4. Great story. Still laughing at the pot being used to plant flowers in!

  5. I think David's grandma and my grandma could be friends...her favorite thing to say it "what can you do with what you've got". In her house she has a hammer and a rolling pin used for door handles...really. I should blog about her sometime. Such a different generation. I am thankful for our plumbing! Great story.

  6. I know a family who kept the family pee pot as an heirloom (it really is a lovely pot) but the sister uses it to serve soup in. Needless to say, I don't think I'd eat soup at their place.

  7. Have you ever seen that South Park where the internet stops working and everyone loses their shit and has to head out to "Californy-way" to get internet? It's pretty hysterical and reminds me how spoiled I can be. Like, why do I get frustrated when the internet doesn't work or is unusually slow? If I really think about HOW it works - it makes my head want to explode.

  8. David's grandmother sounds amazing! I can't imagine growing up without indoor plumbing!

    On a completely unrelated note, I saw this today and it made me think of you: