As a young boy, I never could quite understand how my father could spend hours each evening in that room.
The routine went like this: After arriving home shortly before 6 p.m., our dad would join his seven sons – and our poor mother – at the dinner table. Prayers were said, stories exchanged, brothers heckled, rolls thrown (with seven of us, any excuse to have a catch was acted upon), and food shared.
As dinner wound down, we all went our separate ways. Some to do the dishes, others to watch TV or perhaps shoot hoops before dusk turned to dark. Our father? He ventured upstairs to the bathroom. It would be the last any of us would see of him for quite some time.
The evening news would come and go. Wheel of Fortune would follow, with still no sign of life from the bathroom. Jeopardy! came next, and it was a rare sight indeed if Dad ventured out before Final Jeopardy.
What could compel a man to sit hunched over on an ill-suited seat for hours at a time? Perhaps it was the fact that the radiator adjacent to the toilet rivaled the local library in its offering of reading materials. The periodical section included rumpled issues of Readers Digest and Time, along with that day’s edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Perhaps it was the news, or more often how it was covered, that prolonged the after-dinner indigestion and the duration of his stay.
Then again, the non-fiction section of the radiator library had any number of books: biographies of the Founding Fathers, motivational books (long before they came into vogue), and an entire section of Irish history.
Each book had its own bookmark peaking out at various stages. For our dad, reading was like playing a game of Parcheesi. You move all your pieces slowly toward the finish line at the same time, while occasionally getting sent back to the beginning in order to remember what the prior pages had to say.
Meanwhile, outside the bathroom walls, my brothers and I did what came naturally to a household of seven boys. The staircase became a bumpy ramp as we slid downstairs with pillows clutched to our backsides. Thumping against the house just outside the bathroom window signaled a game of wall ball was underway, leaving the house peppered with imprints from a dirty tennis ball. Water balloons dropped from third floor windows on unsuspecting victims below. The basement turned into the world’s noisiest skating rink as old metal roller skates clanked along the cement floor. The activities may have varied, but the end result was always the same: chaos.
Perhaps the chaos outside the bathroom is what kept our father inside. Long gone were the fairy tale ‘50s (if ever they existed as such) when a man could come home to a quiet dinner table and spend the rest of the evening with a newspaper and a glass of fine whiskey at his side. Instead, our father traded Ward Cleaver’s comfy living room couch for a less than cozy toilet seat. I can’t say I blame him.
In hindsight, that bathroom afforded our dad the only retreat he ever allowed himself. He spent his days at the office, and his time at home was anything but his own. Whether it was running to Little League games or the hardware store, volunteering at our church or making sure we got there, his life was spent in service to his family, his community, and his church. Given that, I suppose he could afford himself a little extra time on the pot.
As a father of three young children, I find myself appreciating even more the sacrifices our father and mother both made for us boys. Likewise, I now fully appreciate and understand our father’s daily retreats to the head.
For I find myself doing the very same thing.