I use a fountain pen to write my morning pages. It’s a Mont Blanc fountain pen that sits in its desktop holder. It belonged to my mentor, my high school English teacher Ed Brush. Ed is responsible for Tom and I coming back together; he married us at the side of Mt. Tam.
Ed actually left the pen to Tom, but Tom doesn’t like using fountain pens. I, on the other hand, have a collection of them. I like writing with a fountain pen. There’s something about the way the ink flows onto the page.
We had one of those in my bathroom growing up. It appeared about the time I was ten. My grandmother had crocheted an antebellum-style pink dress for a small doll, stuck the legs into the center of a roll of toilet paper, and without much ceremony, given it to my mother.
My grandmother was an expert seamstress and knitter, and could crochet anyone under the table. I still have a blouse she hand stitched when she was 95. I don’t wear it. I just keep it so I can marvel at the evenness of the stitching. I think those stitches would survive a nuclear explosion.
The doll who hid the toilet paper began appearing in bathrooms around the country about the same time it appeared in ours – during the early Sixties. I suspect it began as a nifty idea in Woman’s Day or Better Homes and Gardens, and then swept the nation without fanfare or being noted in daily newspapers.
Woman’s Day and Better Homes and Gardens were targeted at women whose homes would have the toilet paper neatly stashed out of sight in a closet or cabinet. I’m kind of thinking that the doll who hid the toilet paper was a way to bring graciousness to the bathroom – a way to provide guests with a brand new roll of toilet paper, thus avoiding their coming face-to-face with the dreaded final square at an awkward moment.
This could be where the phrase “Getting caught with your pants down,” comes from.
Of course, like the guest towels, I don’t think anyone ever used that roll of toilet paper the doll hid. I mean, what would you do with the doll afterwards?
Last night, as I cleared the table, I lifted the bowl of roasted broccoli and cauliflower to reveal another domestic vestige of my childhood: the round wooden trivet it had been placed on had this inscribed on it:
My house is clean enough to be healthy, and dirty enough to be happy.
That was my mother, the daughter of the woman who made the doll who hid the toilet paper and in her nineties bragged that the manager of the elder housing community she lived in told her she kept her house nicer than anyone else.
This difference created some tension between them. Particularly when my grandmother lived with my mother for some five years. Getting her own apartment was like manna from heaven for her and for my mother. Each once again had dominion over her domain.
My mother’s home continued to be clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy. Her approach to interior decorating was haphazard. It had its own logic. At some point I discovered that the silver-coated wine-tasting cup, dangling from a chain hooked onto a picture hanger, was hung in her den not because of its significance, but because it hid the hole that revealed the layers of paint that had built up between the time my brother’s wedding picture had been hung there, and then taken down after his divorce.
It was, I guess, a version of the doll who hid the toilet paper.
She eschewed crafts that kept her at home. Traveling the world was her passion. This Christmas, as I put the hand-painted Santa Claus on the tree, I realized that it was one she had made. I remembered her kitchen table covered with vials of paint and blank precut flat wooden ornaments – angels, trees, Santas. She had resorted to crafting them in order to keep from losing her mind as the relentless march of Alzheimer’s took my father from her. Leaving the house was an exotic event for her during the time he lived at home.
My mother had wanted to be an artist, wanted to work for Disney studios. But, she came of age at a time when women had to have a particular mindset in order to be out in the world, rather in the home. She would have had to stray too far from my grandmother to do that. And so she didn’t.
It’s a shame. My mother’s hand-painted ornament reveals her talent. It was innate.
That trivet — “My house is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy,” I think was my mother’s act of rebellion – a rebellion against what defined a woman. She, along with so many other women, got a taste of what might be possible for them when they left the home to work during World War II. Then, like many of the others, she sucked that experience up so things could get back to normal. I think they sucked it up so they could heal the men who returned from war
But, she and they were of that generation who didn’t talk about it. They just did what they thought they were supposed to do, for the good of all.
I think that beneath the surface of that normal life was a world of grief: the grief of men who had experienced the Great Depression and a War; the grief of women who had lost loved ones in the War; and the grief of women who had been given a glimpse of a world outside the home, and then had it taken from them in the name of returning to normal.
Modern conveniences (TV dinners, frozen fish sticks, and so on) were supposed to make them happier, relieve them of the chore of domestic life. I think what it did instead, was remove the artistry of domesticity, and turned it into a trap. At least that was the struggle my mother had. And I had to figure my way out of it.
Somewhere along the line, I learned that writing was my avocation. Claiming it required that I had to throw off the self-imposed limits the women in my family had accepted as just a fact of life. And then I had to reclaim my need for the art of domesticity – creating a home.
Ed Brush was my mentor. He taught me Shakespeare. He taught me that it was important to look beneath the surface – to reveal lies that kept us from our humanity.
About a month before he died, I visited with him and his wife Lee. I told him the story about the doll who hid the toilet paper. He disappeared and returned with a roll of toilet paper and the doll who had hid his toilet paper. It had been given to him by some relative who clearly was clueless about their household.
He told me to pull down the top of the doll’s dress. I did. On the protruding, plastic breasts of the doll, he had painted red dots. He had given her nipples.