I remember the Census when I was a little girl because of my Aunt Phyllis. Even back then, some people objected to answering all the questions. Aunt Phyllis was one of those people.
“They government has no business asking me whether I have an indoor tauw-let,” she said. Her eyes got big and round and her voice came out kind of like a surprised chicken squawk, only with words attached. That’s the way Aunt Phyllis always sounded when she got agitated or mad at one of her kids or at Uncle Frank. She had a pretty, heart-shaped face and eyes that took up more space than other grown-up I knew. Her kids, Larry and Cindy had great big eyes just like hers, only relaxed and happy looking. Cindy’s were the prettiest eyes I ever saw; she looked just like she wanted to see everything and everything she saw she liked. Aunt Phyllis’s eyes probably looked just like that when she was a kid, before she started getting agitated about stuff. Now most of the time, her eyes were wide and surprised, and sometimes, when she was super-excited, I thought they might fall right out of her head. That’s the way her eyes looked when she was talking about the Census. She was also the only person I knew that said toilet like a chicken squawk.
I never knew why she cared who knew about her toilet. Nobody I knew had an outdoor toilet that they used regularly. We had an outhouse butted up against the tool-shed out back, but we only used it to store hoes and rakes. It was just a one-holer, probably from the olden days ’causes Mom said Grandma had a two-holer when she was growing up before the houses had an indoor toilet. Dad said they used to use corn-cobs to wipe. I thought he was pulling my leg, about that one, but they didn’t have Wonder Bread back then, so maybe they didn’t have Scott’s toilet paper either. Still and all, there had to be something better than a corn cob, for-crying-out-loud.
Sometimes we just went #1 outside, but only if we were way out in the field. I tried not to do that too often ’cause once I had a sty in my eye, and Grandma said that was from peeing outside. Pee was a naughty word for me, but Grandma could say anything she wanted. That sty hurt, so I didn’t want another one; besides, I didn’t want Grandma to know I was going #1 outside. She knew a lot things without me ever telling her: like how much I liked staying at her house, especially when the peas in her garden were ready for picking, and how I would like the iron-ore she brought back from her trip to Iron Mountain, and how I sometimes I got in trouble just because I wanted to know why about the rules and Mom just said, “Why do you have to be so bull-headed?” That last one always made Grandma smile.
Once we had to use that outhouse, ’cause Frankie flushed something down the toilet and stopped it up and Mom couldn’t get it fixed for the life of her. Mom could fix just about anything; I never saw a repairman at our house. If something broke, she just took it apart and figured out what was wrong. Mom was an expert at fixing the vacuum sweeper and the washing machine, except she needed some help tipping the washer over on its side. I could help with that. She even fixed the car: sometimes she had some extra parts left over, but the car worked like new. Once she made a mistake with adding oil and tried to put in where the dip-stick goes, but the man at the gas-station straightened her out on that one.
“You’re almost out of oil, ma’am.” He said, showing Mom the dipstick.
“That can’t be,” she said. I just put some in this morning.
“How much did you put in?”
“Until it wouldn’t take anymore,” she told him.
“Where did you put it? If you don’t mind me asking.” He was super-polite to Mom, ’cause she went in there all the time.
“Well, right here, where the stick goes,” she said, like he was insulting her intelligence. He only smiled a little bit when he showed her where it was supposed to go. I was just happy I saw the whole thing, ’cause when I got bigger, I knew right where the oil went. Besides, Mom like to tell that story and she always laughed as hard as anyone, and that made me feel okay about making my own mistakes.
Anyways, she only half-fixed the toilet: we could go #1 in it, ’cause liquid flushed down, but no #2: that we had to do in the outhouse, while Mom figured out how to get the toilet working again. She said she was thinking about what could be plugging that toilet so much, she might have even been thinking about it in her sleep. Then one day the answer came to her in an alarming way.
There she was, going #1, sitting on the toilet thinking about how to fix it. My guess is she was praying to God, she’d figure it out and not have to call the plumber. She already bought a ‘snake,’ which the man and the hardware store said would get just about anything out. Then out from under her, an alarm went off. A real alarm. It turned out Frankie flushed Deanna’s Baby Ben alarm clock down the toilet, and for some reason, out of the blue, it went off. Deanna never missed it, ’cause it was summertime, so she had no reason to get up early. Once Mom knew what was down there, she figured out how to get it out.
Every time we have a Census year and people start complaining about invasion of privacy, I think about Aunt Phyllis and her indignation about the tauw-let question. After that, I think about Mom sitting in quiet reverie on the toilet, getting the bejeezers startled out of her – I would say ‘scared out of her pants,’ if her pants weren’t already around her ankles – by an alarm clock in the bowels of the toilet.
I guess it just goes to show: inspiration can come from anywhere.