Buying toilet paper makes me feel grown up. I walk into Duane Reade or CVS or any myriad of discount stores in Manhattan, and as I hand over my selection (usually a 4 pack) I lay down my payment…cash… (my age is showing) and walk out swinging my bag with a sense of accomplishment and a renewed confidence in my step.
Growing up my Mother always had the responsibility of keeping us one roll ahead of toilet paper panic. I never gave it a thought. Then in College, I lived in a dorm and once again toilet paper magically appeared with always a spare in the stall.
My earliest recollection of buying my own was shortly after I graduated from college. I had a BA in English, a teaching certificate and no job. After that summer spent at my parents cabin in the Poconos, I decided to stay in the cabin come September and work…at something. So I did. I pumped gas at a local gas station and had some waitress work. I was independent. Well, okay, I didn’t pay rent but I needed money for gas and food and yes, toilet paper.
My first adult decision came with overwhelming responsibility; Scott tissue or cushiony soft Charmin, perfumed or unscented, single ply or 2 ply, 1000 sheets or 500, recycled paper, (that brown, no name, rough stuff) or white. Oh yes and what was acceptable for the septic system at the cabin? How many rolls? Are a few enough, are 6 too many? I lived alone. How long do they last?
Then came which way to hang it on the roller; paper unrolling over the top or coming from the bottom? I once asked a potential roommate,” Do you unroll from the bottom or the top? “ Our sharing an apartment hung in the balance as I awaited her answer. I was prepared to walk away if she said, top.
Running out of toilet paper is the epitome of failing on the most basic of human levels. It’s humiliating to resort to a Kleenex or worse a paper towel. I’ve been known to swipe a roll from a bar or restaurant bathroom, you know, late at night when I realize I forgot to buy any that day and I’m about to go home. Or worse yet, pull a huge wad off a friends roll and shove it in my pocket.
I spent three weeks in Indonesia and my Indonesian sister-in law, took us to many places tourists never visit. However after the first day, I quickly learned that I needed to take a roll with me from the hotel because their culture around toilets in the countryside wasn’t western. I felt very proud being responsible for the bathroom comfort of our little travelling community.
I take wiping my own butt very seriously. And I no longer take it for granted. I watch my 93-year-old father struggle with the most basic hygiene. In his assisted living home, he often has to ring for the attendant to help him clean himself and the loss of his dignity is palpable. Several times he’s had to ask me to do it, his only daughter, because none of my brothers or the attendant were available.
We are helpless when it comes to Dad’s failing health. His journey is near the end. All we can do watch. He asked one brother to pick him up some toilet paper and my brother returned with a package of 40 rolls because, “They were on sale and a real bargain”. He was sure my father would be proud because Dad would drive 5 miles out of his way to save 2 cents a gallon on gas. My father could not stop laughing. “How long do you think I’m gonna live? I’ll bequeath what’s left back to you.”
That same brother had an ex-girlfriend who actually asked him to move out because he used too much toilet paper. Who decides what’s too much? Was she in there counting little squares after he finished? He’s taking personal responsibility for his needs, as do all who were taught by my father. Lesson one! Wipe your own ass.
It’s amazing how that basic concept seems to have gotten away from us.
Dad sees that we’ve lost pride in personal responsibility and accountability. He desperately wants to wipe his own butt and is baffled and disappointed that others don’t. Whining, blame, and finger pointing have worn him out. “I didn’t know I was supposed to wipe my own ass? Why didn’t you do it? It’s your fault. Don’t you tell me what to do! I’m reporting you. I shouldn’t have to deal with this.”
Dad says he’s ready to go. He’s actually out lived the 40 rolls my brother bought. But he complains that he doesn’t know why he’s still here. He watches televised golf, goes to wine down Wednesdays, occasionally plays a little cards and just waits. It takes incredible strength of character for him to navigate each day.
Dad passed a few months before Covid and The Great Toilet Paper Hoard of 2020. It seemed a somewhat odd and humorous reaction to a global pandemic and a complete lock down none of us had ever experienced. My brother actually had to send me a couple of roles in the mail as none was to be found in NYC. The ‘hoard’ didn’t feel much like taking personal responsibility, however, but rather trying to calm or control the fear and being selfish in the execution. I wondered how my father would have responded. He had navigated the Depression and WWII with rations and sharing and caring for neighbors. I fear his disappointment would have been overwhelming.
Dad always said, “it’s hard to find real joy and self-respect without personal responsibility.” Looking out at 2021, I know what he means. He fought till his last breath to wipe his own butt. It’s an honorable legacy. And a lesson I will always remember.
Kathryn Rossetter is an actress/writer/acting teacher and private coach in NYC. Her essays have appeared in “No Kidding; Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood”, “The Hollywood Reporter”, and “The Gettysburg Magazine.” She has also written several solo shows including, “Ripe” and “Starving Hysterical Naked” as well as two screenplays that were semi-finalists for Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, “Fine!” and “Virgin Territory”. She is the recipient of a Tennessee Williams Fellowship for writing and developing solo performance. Kathryn lives in Hell’s Kitchen with her little Chihuahua mix, Squirt. She can be found online here.