In an unforgettable scene in John Steinbeck’s 1939 classic “The Grapes of Wrath,” the migrant Joad family encounters indoor plumbing for the first time in a government camp in California. They’re amazed, and a little frightened, by gleaming flush toilets and showers with hot and cold running water.
It doesn’t take long for them to wonder how they ever got along without such luxuries. But never once do they complain about having to wait their turn in line.
I’m reminded of the longsuffering Joads every time I have to share a bathroom, which—as an empty nester living in a house with more than enough—doesn’t happen very often. A week in a 1930s-era beach cottage with eight adults and two babies was a reality check. The cottage had two bathrooms, each with a wobbly commode, a stand-alone sink with no counters, and a rust-stained bathtub. But only one of those tubs had a shower. The shower bathroom was downstairs and had two doors—one off the bedroom where George and I slept and one off the entry porch. Seriously.
The good news is that the bathroom was near the extra-large water heater, which occupied a corner in the front hall. Everything else is bad news.
Ten people means twenty wet towels. Ten bath towels, ten beach towels. Throw in a handful of washcloths and several colorful nylon poufs and you’ve got lots of stuff that needs to be hung up to dry. Problem was, the cottage had a total of five towel bars. I’d brought rope and a sack of clothespins from home in hopes of stringing up a clothesline but quickly discovered there was no place to put one. The yard had no useable trees and though the screened porch had a couple of heavy duty eye-bolts screwed into posts, tying a clothesline to them would have left us with no place to sit.
Doorknobs and bed posts would have to suffice.
Then there was the matter of countless bottles of shampoo and crème rinse and body wash and shaving gel, four Venus razors (three of them the same color) and a couple of shower caps, all of which had to be precariously perched on the narrow edge of the tub or stored on top of the commode tank next to the spare rolls of toilet paper.
Add the fact that the cottage didn’t have central air conditioning and that the only window in the bathroom was painted shut and you’ve got a recipe for a fairly unpleasant shower experience. Even before discovering that the six people in line ahead of you hadn’t tried very hard to rinse the sand off their feet under the outdoor spigot and that the tiny bathroom waste basket is overflowing with diapers and dental floss and a not-quite-empty can of diet Coke and that the only box of Kleenex in the whole cottage has fallen into a puddle on the floor.
You begin to wonder why let’s-all-rent-an-old-timey-beach-cottage ever seemed like a good idea. But then you remember how grateful the Joads were not to have to use an outhouse and how really wonderful it is to soap up and rinse off without having to haul water and heat it over a fire and how these people you’re forced to share a bathroom with are your children and their children and are the dearest people in all the world to you. So you take your tepid shower and dry off with a still-soggy towel and head to the kitchen where those who showered ahead of you are talking and laughing while they scrub potatoes and shuck corn and pop the heads off gigantic fresh shrimp.
And you’re thankful for blessings in abundance.
(June 8, 2014)