Some years ago, when this column went by another name in a paper preceding The News that also went by another name, people often asked, “Where do you get the ideas for a column?”
Back then, in the days when my every word was delivered by hand, mail, or at best, faxed to the newspaper office I came up with an answer to that question. It was inspired by the quaint but necessary little structure not far from the cabin where we were vacationing on Cortes Island. Sometimes, I realized, my ideas came straight from the throne.
And so it is this week.
Some recent conversation twigged a memory of another of those quaint structures, and there was my inspiration. Whole books have been written and illustrated to preserve and broadcast the lore of the lowly outhouse; so I should be able to devote one column to a particular little house that figured largely in my family history.
In my northern Ontario days, our home had a proper indoor bathroom with the standard three fixtures. In fact, when back in the hometown one summer, I was invited to visit the old homestead by its current owners.
The lady of the house took me through every room that was once part of my first 20 years. At the sight of the old claw-foot tub with its very same old brass tap under which my mother used to rinse my hair while I bawled from soapy eyes, I couldn’t help but ask, “May I take a picture?”
“Of my bathtub?” she asked, “Well, sure, I guess so.”
And so I did.
Well, that bathroom was sheer luxury compared with the facility at our island cabin. As did most cabins on the lake, ours lacked indoor plumbing except for the hand pump by the kitchen sink.
For other purposes, one had to go out the back door, climb a little hill, go down a little dip, up another hill and there it stood — the one-holer. The crescent moon was not part of its décor. My dad had installed a square pane of glass for optimum viewing of the surrounding pines and curious squirrels.
When I spent several summers on the island with my husband and my own little family, the same little outhouse still served us well … until it began to tilt badly to port.
My first husband, Norm, who worked with his father building cottages, docks, and boathouses for other cottagers on the lake, decided to upgrade our facilities.
At the time, he was working to install an indoor bathroom in a wealthy woman’s cottage. When the job was finished, she obviously had no more use for her outhouse.
“Could we have it?” asked Norm.
“Do what you like with it, just get it out of my sight,” she told him.
One late afternoon not long after, I was sitting on our dock when I heard the labouring sound of Norm’s boat coming up the lake. I wondered why he was going so slowly. As he got closer, I realized he was towing something astern.
It’s shape seemed a little unusual for a vessel in tow. A large “bow” wave was being pushed in front of the still-unidentified object. Then I noticed a kind of circular swirl of water pouring from the object’s “stern.”
Understanding came slowly but surely as the apparition approached our dock.
The towed “vessel” was our second-hand outhouse!
Norm had removed its roof, which now rested in the boat, and attached tow ropes to the top of the floating structure. Towing the little house to our island had served two purposes — it got it to its destination, and flushed it clean at the same time, as the water flowed through its roofless top and washed out through the seat for our bottoms.
Once ashore, our newfound treasure became even more of a convenience than its predecessor.
The old pit at the top of the little double hill was filled in and our new “bathroom” was set upright at the end of a level trail.
With roof affixed, it remained sturdy and dry until the year we left the island for the last time and started our journey west.
Nancy Whelan is a regular News columnist.