Two squares. Left to her own devices, that’s the exact amount of toilet paper my grandmother chooses. It’s not an accident, either. She deliberately counts them – one, two – and then gently separates the delicate paper from the roll. It doesn’t matter how messy she is. Anything more than two is a waste.
She’s 95 years old, walks with a walker, and has an oxygen tank. She wears hearing aids and laughs when she doesn’t hear what you say. She goes to bed at 8 p.m., even if she’s slept all day. And she only uses two squares of toilet paper.
One of the first known instances of the use of toilet paper was by a Chinese emperor in 1391. Toilet paper was a luxury item. It was a two-foot by three-foot sheet of cloth. The Bureau of Imperial Supplies began producing the sheets, up to 720,000 a year. These were distributed mostly to the emperor, as many citizens could not afford them.
It’s a good bet the emperor didn’t wipe his own bum, since such a task was beneath him, so the large size probably came in handy for his assistants.
My grandmother was born in England in 1919. At the end of World War II, when she came to the United States with my grandfather, she brought along some of her heritage. One word I can remember her using frequently was “loo.” She even had a small plaque on the bathroom door with the word on it. She never had to use the bathroom or the restroom or the toilet. She would simply say, “I have to pay a penny to the loo.” I never questioned it.
The first flushing toilet was introduced in 1596. Its creator, Sir John Harrington, was a British nobleman and the godson of Queen Elizabeth I, and he often suggested flushing at least twice a day – a bit low for today’s standards. This incredible toilet required a simple pull of a handle to empty water from a cabinet, and this water would wash the business away. This is why when it was first invented it was called the water closet.
Although no one knows for sure, there is some speculation that the nickname “the John” is in reference to Sir John Harrington himself.
Rationing took its toll on the World War II populace. Even with rationing gone, many World War II veterans and survivors still have the mentality that things need to be saved and reused, or even minimalized, something younger generations in this throw-away world don’t seem to understand. My grandmother is no exception to this. She washes out sandwich bags to reuse them. She hides extra money in the hems of her clothes. And she only uses two squares of toilet paper in the loo.
The average person spends a total of three years of his life on the toilet. This is a lot of time in one place, and humans have discovered innovative ways to help the time pass. One way commonly depicted in comics and movies is to bring a newspaper along to catch up on business while doing your business. Another way to occupy time on the porcelain throne is to buy themed toilet paper. It now comes in a variety of colors and prints, including Sudoku. This makes it possible to keep your brain sharp in an otherwise dull situation. Fill out your puzzle, and then wipe yourself clean with it.
The newest innovation to help pass the time on the John is the cell phone. Boredom no longer exists. Play games, text friends, even call them to say, “Hello.” In extreme circumstances, the cell phone can even tell you if your most recent feces sample is healthy or not.
When my grandmother first started to lose her independence, she would fight with my mother, her caretaker, about everything. Doctor appointments, using the walker, the way food was prepared. The proper amount of toilet paper to use was no exception to this, and she fought hard for her two squares. If my mother handed her more, she’d tear off her portion and hand the excess back, saying, “Here, you can waste it.”
Toilet paper is no longer just a cleaner for your behind. It has evolved to be more versatile in its usage. It’s used for blowing noses; though not as soft as facial tissue, it holds up just as well under pressure. It’s used to clean up messes; after all, that’s why it was invented, right? In a pinch, it can be used for packing material. It can even be festive. On Halloween, it can be used to turn a person into a mummy, or you can throw it all over the yard of the house where they skimped on the candy.
In 2005, a new use for toilet paper was discovered: clothing. A contest was announced, and using nothing but toilet paper, glue, and tape, contestants were challenged to create the best wedding dress. The contest was such a hit, it became an annual thing.
My grandmother would see all of this folly as a waste of good toilet paper.
As U.S. citizens, we see toilet paper as a necessity, but the truth is that it’s not. Four billion people, about seventy percent of Earth’s population, still do not use toilet paper. The reasons vary. For some, it is a matter of religious beliefs. For others, it is a lack of trees to produce the product. A lot of the world’s population finds this first-world commodity too expensive and would rather not spend so much money on fancy paper to wipe their behinds. Perhaps U.S. citizens understand the pricing issue better than we think. After all, this is the land of opportunity, and seven percent of hotel guests take the opportunity to acquire toilet paper from their rooms.
Over the years, my grandmother has tried to teach me many things. She has tried to teach me about love and kindness, responsibility, and owning up to one’s mistakes. Honesty. How to appreciate nature. Conservation. And she has taught me that I will never use just two squares of toilet paper.