When I was growing up, we had outdoor toilets. Ours was about fifteen feet from the back steps. That may seem close for a one-holer but when it is twenty below and a wind is blowing, you want the trip to be a short as possible.
I will always remember trying not to go until I couldn’t hold it anymore, then racing outside, trying to pull the door shut just in case someone came to visit my folks or a stray husky came by and got curious. There was always a little snow drift that had to be kicked out of the way before the door would close. How fast can you get your pants down and the trap door on your long underwear open and out of the way? No matter how fast you were, you ended up freezing.
Sometimes there was toilet paper but often there was an Eaton’s catalogue. In the summer, one might linger while looking at all the things one’s heart might desire but which one could not afford. In winter, when a freezing wind is blowing through the cracks in the door, snow is settling on your lap, there is no lingering over pictures of a red tricycle.
It would have been easier to have taken off the long underwear inside before making a dash for the outhouse. Except that the town followed an old ritual. Every fall, the people gathered on a set date on the beach. It was just before the first ice formed on the water. Large bonfires were started from driftwood. People brought their male children under twelve and helped them undress. When we were naked, we were then driven or carried kicking and screaming to the lake and thrown in. Our parents, in rubber boots, waded in and scrubbed us top to bottom with Lifebuoy soap. Then they lifted us out of the water, dried us off with a large towel, wrapped us in a wool blanket and set us at the edge of one of the fires. There, they gave our hair another drying with a towel.
Every family brought a package with them. For those with a lot of kids under twelve, it was a big package. For our family it was small since there was just my brother and me. Our mothers pulled out long underwear, helped us put it on, then proceeded to sew us into it. This fall ritual was called the Into. Once in, that was it until the ice came off the lake in spring. At that time, the process was reversed. That was called the Out Of. The underwear was cut off and burned in a bonfire, we were scrubbed in a lake just recently free of ice. This time though we were decked out in an undershirt and undershorts. With no trap door and buttoned fly, life became less of a challenge.
Except for the washing in the cold lake water, it was fun. A family get together, a fire, roasting hot dogs, drinking hot cocoa, singing songs. Only when we were all dressed were our sisters allowed to join us. The weekend before our Into, our mothers and fathers took their daughters, if they had any, down to the lake for their fall washing but no boys were allowed so I never did find out what it was that the girls were dressed in under their long skirts and dresses. The mystery of the sexes remained. It wasn’t that we wanted to know what the girls bodies looked like under their clothes but, rather, what their bodies were clothed with. When we were older, we’d start to wonder about the bodies under the mysterious clothes.
Of course, once waterworks were forced on the town, the old rituals died out. Everything changed. No more were people found frozen to death in an outhouse. No more was it necessary to develop a strategy to get to the outhouse and back into the house before you turned blue. No more lying behind the wood stove hoping that thawing out wouldn’t be too painful. No more, if you lingered too long, would your mother come to the back door and yell, “If you don’t hurry up, it’s going to freeze and fall off.”
No more bonfires on the beach, no more shock of water ready to turn to ice, no more chipping your front teeth on a cup holding hot cocoa as you vibrated with cold until the fire warmed you up. No more the wonderful feeling of your mother using her scissors to cut you free in the spring. No more getting to fling your long underwear into the fire. No burning away your winter’s sins and beginning fresh again. No more steaming bowls of fishhead soup. No more vinarterta, kliener, asta bolur, or ponnokokkur to get our blood sugar and temperature up. No watching the sky for the Wild Hunt. No rimur recited. No sagas told.
Instead, there was white porcelain in an indoor bathroom. Totally characterless. No ritual. No challenge. No gathering to share an invigorating experience on the beach. No more bellowing songs to Father Winter around the fire. Just the sound of a toilet flushing away tradition.
The traditionalists held onto their outdoor biffys for a year or two. These were the people who clung to the past. They didn’t trust change. They were the types who never threw anything away, just in case. They weren’t sure that plumbing would actually work. But hot and cold water flowed out of the taps. Some grumbled it was the devil’s invention but the day came when the biffy was hauled away. The hole was filled with sand and topped with soil. When ours was taken away my father said, somewhat sadly I thought, “This will be a good spot for a garden in a few years.”