When I was a little girl, we had a basement bathroom that housed one of the strangest commodes found on Earth.
To flush it, you didn’t just push down the handle. Instead, above it on the wall was a large lever with inset writing that had once been painted a bright orange color, but by then was so faded and chipped that you couldn’t even make out all of the words.
The lettering on this lever contained the code to ensuring that your business didn’t become everyone else’s. It was a set of multi-step instructions, a how-to guide if you will, for sending the contents of the bowl down to never-never land.
But here was the catch: if you got the steps out of order, you ran the risk of flushing everything up and out of the toilet onto the floor.
Eventually this exact scenario happened enough times that my Dad gave us girls several stern tutorials on how the process worked. He warned us over and over again that if we ever forgot these instructions, we better just hold it until the upstairs bathroom opened up. (I credit this as the beginning of my childhood fear of toilets overflowing.)
So one day shortly after one of these toilet flushing lectures, I went with my Mom to my grandparent’s house while my sisters were in school. At some point I had to use the bathroom. As I was finishing up, I turned to push the handle down on the toilet bowl. That’s when my four-year-old brain took pause.
‘What if’, I thought, ‘this toilet ALSO will overflow if I don’t flush it right?’ And even though I’d used this bathroom many times before, my little kid’s mind thought that maybe grandma and grandpa had changed things around since the last time I visited. So to ensure that I didn’t flood their floor, I decided to double-check. I yelled through the door “Hey, how do you flush the toilet?”
There was commotion from just the other side of the door in the kitchen, then silence. So I repeated myself, this time yelling at the top of my lungs, “HEY, HOW DO YOU FLUSH THIS TOILET?”
More commotion ensued. Finally my grandfather, a huge burly man, swung the door open and stared at me in consternation.
What followed was a comical scene in which I attempted to find out if this latrine had a mysterious lever-pulling/pushing/alternate-universe technique, and he attempted to show me how to flush a toilet. Finally, grandpa had had enough. Fed up, he snapped, “How can you not know how to flush a toilet? Just push the handle down!”
That’s when I put my hands on my hips and retorted, “Don’t yell at me. I was just trying to help!”
My Mom eventually stepped in to clear things up by explaining to grandpa about my dad’s bathroom lever lessons.
My point of telling this story is that when two people’s unique experiences collide, things tend to get messy. Bickering ensues. Each side is stuck in their own story. ‘Working things out’ after a fight is just another way of saying that we’re willing to stretch a little, to find out more about where the other person is coming from.
This “flushing fiasco” with my grandpa was quickly resolved with good humor. I have a few sweet memories of him from before he passed away that next year – but the biggest one comes from this day. You see, my mom told me that he was stunned that I’d stood up to him. His formidable size and presence tended to deter such backtalk. After this day though, he’d sneak me extra pieces of candy, as if I’d earned a little bit of respect for my bravery.
Shortly after he passed, the world’s weirdest toilet broke for good. I like to think that it was my grandpa getting in the last word.
In memory of Peter Hartman
May 3, 1908- March 24, 1979