Outhouse

When I first started dating my husband, the word was out that he lived simply.  I knew what that meant, but as a strong woman I didn’t care.  The first time I visited him at his farm I had the pleasure of using his outhouse.  Seeing firsthand how he was able to live there with no running water was very interesting.  He had a windmill that pumped water into buckets for everyday drinking, cooking and cleaning, and a trough system to catch the rainwater that he used for bathing. He had a pail under the sink in the kitchen that the used water drained into. He also had a sauna that he had built from scratch with materials he had harvested from his woods.  The walls and the seats were made of cedar.  The whole thing sat on an old fashioned porcelain tub that drained to the outside.  The floor of the sauna seat flipped up to reveal the tub.  He had a tiny cook stove in the corner to provide the heat.  It was a clever use of space.

 The house sits on eighty beautiful acres, and while standing on the deck in the morning, I saw the most marvelous sunrise I had ever seen in my life. The sun rose directly over the roof of the outhouse.   As clever as he was and as beautiful as the farm was, I still had my doubts as to whether I would want to live there. 

I’m from northern Wisconsin.  It’s not like I have never used an outhouse before.  It was a simple building with four sides and a door.  The hole in the bench was covered with a toilet seat.  There was a window to the left of the bench.  I’m using the term window loosely, as there was no actual glass, just a space where a window could go.  The outhouse sat just below the deck of the house.  It was in a very convenient location. Close enough if you were in a hurry but also far enough away so you couldn’t smell it.

It was September, and the weather was still very summer-like.  I excused myself to use the bathroom.  I said “I’m going to use the bath . . . I mean outhouse.”  I tried to say it with bravery and with a tone that said I had done this before, no big deal, I’d be fine!  He just looked at me and said, “Okay.”  I walked down the steps of the deck, dreading it.  What was it going to smell like?  Oh my God!  Spiders!  I forgot about the Spiders!  As I got closer to the outhouse, images of the outhouses at the park in Hokah, Minnesota flashed through my mind.  As a child, they were the scariest part of our family reunion.  There were always spider webs, and of course the webs contained spiders and various dead bugs.  They were in every corner of the little block building.  If you were the first one in, you might catch one across your face.  I would hold my bladder until I was sure an adult had gone in first.  The worst ones were the ones I could see just inside the toilet seat.  I would be standing looking into a dark smelly hole to see if there was a spider hanging out where my butt would be.  Of course now, with my head directly over the hole, I had seen and smelled the real horror of the outhouse.  I had to somehow stop my gag reflex long enough to overcome my fear of the spiders, pull down my pants, offer my butt up to the spider, and pee as quickly as possible.  Sometimes I would not make it out of the outhouse before my pants were pulled up.  An aunt or uncle would see me and tap my mom or dad’s shoulder. They would look across the park at me with hands shielding their eyes from the sun, confused and wondering why their daughter was standing in broad daylight with her pants around her ankles, crying.  Then I would be rescued.

Now, standing before the current outhouse, I timidly pushed the door open.  It wasn’t level, so the door scraped against the floor with a horrible wood-on-wood screech.  I could see by the grooves on the floor that this door was used to being difficult.  I supposed that with every winter’s frost the tiny building fell slightly more out of square. My future husband was never able to get the grooves deep enough in one summer for the door to open smoothly.  I looked inside. He must have swept and cleaned it to impress me.  There were no webs.  I sighed with relief.  I stepped inside, shut the door behind me and enjoyed the nice breeze coming through the hole in the wall that was pretending to be a window.  My first visit to the outhouse was a success.  He even had enough toilet paper in it.  The toilet paper sat to the right of the seat, in a coffee can with a white plastic lid covering it.  Then it dawned on me.  The paper was in the can to keep the mice out of it.  Once again I peed as quickly as possible and got out of there.  

September was very nice as far as outhouses go.  It was a little cool at night but very nice during the day.  As October came it started to get a little chilly, and the wind was whipping through the hole in the wall.  A few days into the cold weather, I mentioned to my future husband that I didn’t really mind the outhouse, but if this was a sign of things to come, I’d better bundle up to use it.  He didn’t respond to my statement, so I thought I had offended him.  I knew it was important to him that the person he was with loved the farm as much as he did.  I think he was really looking for someone to embrace his way of life and live it with him.  At this point I was smitten, and I was willing to give it a chance.  I felt so bad; I wished I hadn’t said anything.  I thought to myself, “Some farm girl you’ll be.”  Every time I went to the outhouse I was wishing I was home sitting on a porcelain stool like everyone else in the modern world.  Keep in mind, this is an old farm.  The barn was a rock skeleton of a once strong foundation that was now barely sticking out of the dirt.  There had been no animals kept there since before he bought the place over thirty five years ago.  The neighbors, however, did pasture cows on his land just above the house.  His only responsibility for them was to maintain the fence line. The place had a few out buildings, and the original house had burned down a few years back, shortly after he and his wife had divorced.  The house he was now living in was actually the pottery shed. He had built this as a work space for his first wife and a place for him to store his painting equipment.  After the house fire, he remodeled the shed into an apartment, so it’s not like I had to actually be a farm girl.  All I had to do was carry water on occasion and pee in the cold.  Carrying the water was okay, but the peeing in the cold was really making me question the whole tomboy title I’d grown up with.  At forty, I guess I was getting somewhat squeamish.  I went home that night with no more mention of the cold outhouse from either one of us.  I was hoping he had just blown it off, thinking I would get used to it, and hoping he wasn’t instead rethinking choosing me.

A couple of days later I came back to the farm.  It didn’t matter if you went to the bathroom before you left, because he lived far enough away that you would have to go when you got there.  Everything seemed good between us, so I stopped worrying about it.  He seemed very happy to see me and I was also happy to see him. 

After holding it as long as I could, I finally broke down and had to use the outhouse.  I put on a brave uncaring face and headed down the stairs of the deck.  I didn’t even bother to excuse myself this time.  I just headed out like I belonged there.  Every time I used the outhouse it seemed like a fear I had to overcome.  I wondered if there was a phobia named to describe the fear of an outhouse.  Was I blazing a phobia trail here?  It was such a big deal to me.  He had stopped sweeping it out by about the third or fourth time I was there.  This brings up a good point:  At what stage in the relationship do you start cleaning your boyfriend’s bathroom?  If it was indoors I would probably just clean up the seat a little and ignore the rest of the room.  So there’s toothpaste in the sink.  So what?   Oh, look, his underwear and yesterday’s clothes are on the floor.  Pfft . . . not my problem. Good grief, look at the mold in the shower!  Mold could actually be a game changer in a relationship if he’s willing to shower with it.  I suppose if I had grown up Amish, this problem would have been covered in everyday play.  Since I am not Amish, cleaning an outhouse never came up.  When I played house with my brothers and other friends, we would pretend to clean an actual bathroom.  I wondered what the protocol was for this.  Should I have taken a broom out with me? Would that make him feel bad?  Should I ask him to clean out the outhouse when this obviously wasn’t bothering him?  I mean, October is the time of the year when all the spiders come out in full force.  The outhouse was probably where they held their little spider, town-meetings for all I knew.  I thought to myself, just open the door, do your business and get out.  I opened the door and that was the moment I realized that the guy inside that house was truly in love with me.  During the last two days we had spent apart he wasn’t rethinking his decision to date me, as I had thought.  He was home thinking about how to keep me.  He had hand-made a window for the outhouse with some scrap wood and an old window pane he had apparently been saving for this moment.  And it was swept out.  I stayed there a little longer to admire his handiwork.  I didn’t worry about the spiders, and came out of there with a glowing smile.  From that moment on the love part of the love/hate relationship with the outhouse had started.

At that time I still had my own house, and time at the farm was minimal.  I still enjoyed the modern conveniences of my house.  Our relationship continued to grow.  We started a family and got married.  Yes, in that order.  He was sixty years old at the time, and I was forty.  He is a very young sixty.  I went to the doctor fully expecting to be told that I was heading into menopause, only to find out that after raising three children to adulthood, I would be starting over.  This would be his first child.  To make a long story short, we wrapped our heads and hearts around the news. I sold my home and moved out to my new husband’s old farm.  I had committed myself to the outhouse.  What in the world was I thinking?

I have one grown child still living with us.  He is a senior in high school.  He lives in one of the little out buildings approximately thirty feet from the house.  This past summer we decided to move the outhouse behind his place.  Big Mistake!  There is no light back there and now, not only do I fear the spiders, I also worry about bears, big cats, coyotes, raccoons, and slipping down the hill in the snow and mud.  Everything on this land is either uphill or downhill. The only flat spot on the property is in the driveway.  I often tell people, the only things that would live where I do are birds and goats.  

I awoke about 1:00 AM and had to use the bathroom.  I had this junky little flashlight that I had gotten from the local gas station.  It only worked half of the time, and to make it do that, you had to shake it and hold it really still so the light wouldn’t go out.  My son was also awake and was heading up to the house for some water.  I opened the door at the same time that he ran into whatever it was I saw standing at the bottom of the steps.  I screamed and so did he.  He ran back to his place and we called each other on our cell phones.  He said, “What the hell was that?”  I said, “I don’t know.  All I saw were eyes and black fur.”  He said, “Do you think it was a bear?”  I said, “I don’t know.  Let me see if it’s still there.” Both of us were shook up and out of breath.  I went to the door and slowly opened it.  I shook that stupid little flashlight like I was trying to kill it.  It finally went on.  The eyes and black fur were still there. They were standing still just looking back at me.  Then it made a noise.  “MOOOO.”  I let out a big sigh and started laughing.  I told him it was the neighbor’s cows.  They were everywhere.  My son went out and chased them back to the fence line.  I continued to the outhouse, and he got his water.

One night it was very dark, and again, very late.  I had gotten out of bed and left my husband sleeping.  I had recently gotten a new cell-phone with a light on it.  Now I could at least see where I was going.  I got down to the outhouse and proceeded to do my business.  I heard coyotes just below the hill.  They were making horrible noises like they were going to make a kill.  Then I heard sniffing at the door of the outhouse and scratching on the back wall as well.  I started thinking the worst.  Oh God, they’re at the door and I can’t leave.  I was freezing and just wanted to go back to the house.  I tried calling the house phone but no one answered.  I called my son, hoping he had his phone turned on.  He did.  “I think I’m surrounded by coyotes,” I said, in a loud whisper (like they wouldn’t be able to smell me, and they were just waiting for me to talk to verify my presence).  He said, “What do you want me to do?”  I said, “I don’t know, come chase them away!”  I was totally willing to offer up my son to a pack of coyotes or wolves to get out of there.  My son is very brave.  He came out and I heard him start laughing.  “Mom, it was raccoons.  Can I go back to bed now?” Talk about crying wolf–or coyote, in this case.  I could not have hated that outhouse any more than I did at that moment.  In the morning I took it out on my husband.  If he asked me where something was I would say, “I don’t know, go look in the outhouse.”   If he asked me a question I would say, “I don’t know, go ask the outhouse.” 

This fall we put in a septic system.  After the imaginary coyotes, I felt that for the safety of my son we should have it.  Because we put it in so late in the fall, the plumber didn’t think it was a good idea to start using it until spring.  Who does he think he is?  With one sentence he held back, by a full season, my dream of sitting on an indoor toilet.  Maybe his wife would like to come and use my outhouse this winter?  This winter has been an especially cold winter, too.  I am so looking forward to spring.  Maybe the plumber would let me come and use his bathroom . . .

 This story may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it’s my reality.  As a woman there are certain times of the month that using an indoor facility would be so much nicer, especially when it’s twenty below.  For the men who are actually still reading at this point, I will describe the workings of a tampon wrapper.  Try to hang in there.  If you can’t, just skip to the next chapter and read on.  I promise not to bring this up again.

Tampons are a necessary evil in this world, as is “that time of the month.”  Most women float through it with no pain and minimal inconvenience.  Then there are the rest of us.  It has always been the bane of my existence.  I blame everything I did not become on that time of the month.  For some, It starts a week, or sometimes two weeks earlier, depending upon Mother Nature’s mood and sense of humor.   Two weeks before the evil monthly uninvited visitor arrives, you start to change.   You have uncontrollable energy and are capable of doing anything. You want to go to the moon?  I’ll build you a rocket.  You want to drive all night till you get there?  Jump in my car.  You name it, nothing is impossible this week, and you can’t understand why everyone around you seems to be standing still.  By the end of this week you still have all of the energy, except something is happening to you.  Your thumbs have devolved into useless appendages not capable of holding anything.  They won’t even work if you use two hands.  Often this makes it worse and you end up throwing random things, because now your brain isn’t communicating with both arms at the same time.  By the second week you can’t imagine doing anything.  Getting up in the morning is your star achievement.  If anyone expects great things of you this week, they will be sadly disappointed–or possibly killed suddenly–if they mention it to you.  You are as tired as a body can be, yet when you close your eyes your brain turns on.  This activates your eyes and ears and you have to get out of bed to somehow entertain them until your brain demands that you get at least two hours of sleep before you have to get up for work.   Let’s just say that by the time the uninvited evil visitor arrives, you’re in no mood for anything unusual to happen.  Uniformity and behavioral patterns are your new best friends.  They are all that is left to keep you on the path to not getting fired from work after the last two weeks.  Remember, all of this is on top of the pain and suffering of actually dealing with the visitor. 

So you’re wondering, after describing something this miserable, how could it get any worse?  Here’s the thing:  Tampons were invented as a way to help women get through a rough time by taking some of the embarrassment out of this time.  They are the most wonderful invention since my mom discovered TV dinners.  They are intricately woven cotton fibers that you place . . . well, you know where they go.  I don’t think I need to describe that.  Most of them come packed nicely into a little plastic tube for easy use, and this plastic tube is surrounded by a wonderful little easy-open plastic wrapper.  Most even come with little tabs on them so you know where to open them.  Some even come with little perforated dots so the plastic rips where it’s supposed to.  The ones I use have all of these features.  I skimp and save on a lot of things but I refuse to go for savings over quality, for these little babies.  Forget it!

What I have discovered this winter is that an outhouse will strip you of the last little bit of dignity the wonderful tampon companies have given back to women by designing such wonderful products.  The physics involved in using a tampon had clearly not been tested in twenty degrees below zero weather.  By the time you are done going to the bathroom you cannot feel your fingers.  They are the tools you will need to open this product.  Since none are provided in the box, you must use your own.  You reach into your pocket and retrieve the tampon.  Your hand gets a mind of its own and wants to stay in the warm pocket.  The wind that is howling outside the door whips around behind the outhouse and finds any crack or crevice to make its way back up the hole to your butt.  Your butt now screams at your brain to get your hand out of your pocket and get this job done.  You pull your hand out of the pocket and begin to open the tampon.  I say begin, because what would take two seconds in an indoor bathroom will now become a two minute project.  You hold it up and look at it.  You’re shaking so badly that you can’t grab onto it with your free hand.  You muster up the skill of a Ninja, and desperately try to control your breathing, and shaking and with your teeth chattering, you grab the little tabs that probably say “Open Here” (if you had the light to see it), and you pull them.  Success at last!  At twenty below, every step completed is a milestone worthy of celebration. Nothing happens.  It’s not yet open. Now you become confused because you know you have just pulled the little tabs.  The wrapper has become brittle in the cold. The little tabs have taken off only a small corner of the wrapper.  The hole that the torn-off tabs have made is no bigger than the tip of a sharpened pencil.  Now you are almost crying.  Don’t cry stupid, your eyes will freeze shut!  You struggle and struggle until it finally opens.  At this point you are so happy with yourself that you begin chastising the tampon.  “You thought you were stronger than me, you . . . you . . . little plastic wrapper, wrapped around a plastic . . . tube thing.  I win!  You lose!”  Except you don’t win because now you realize where you have to put this little frozen cottoncicle.   You know you sound crazy, and are thankful no one has heard you.  Not because you’re cursing out your tampon, but because you’re cursing out your tampon in an outhouse in 2014.  You will now begin to cry, and have to feel your way back up to the house and thaw your eyelashes by the wood stove. 

I’m sure I’ll laugh about this someday, until then it’s okay if you laugh. I don’t mind.

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