My parents moved into the suburbs when I was three, which would have been around 1957 or so. I don’t remember this happening, as I was preoccupied with the scattershot distractions that are the mastery of three-year old boys. They could have bolted wings to our old city house and flown it into the ‘burbs and I wouldn’t have noticed, especially if I was in the middle of saving the kingdom from my sofa cushion fort.
Our suburban house (along with every other nearly identical house on the street) was designed for speed of construction rather than architectural style, and while it had everything we needed, it didn’t have much more than that. One thing I never noticed at all was that there was only one bathroom, and I doubt I would have noticed this even if I had been older. Nobody ever wished they had another bathroom, because they may as well have wished for an indoor zoo with a built-in pool on the side. City or suburbs, most houses only had one bathroom. I suppose this was a leftover convention from the outhouse days, and never received a “hey, why not have more than one” upgrade until years later.
As our family grew, this didn’t matter for the kids in diapers, but there were times when having one toilet and one tub was a little annoying. We managed though, even as neighbors were carving out powder rooms in the oddest of places. Most who took the plunge put a powder room in the basement, but not our next-door neighbor. He put a toilet in the small kitchen pantry next to the refrigerator, right behind the Formica dinette set. There wasn’t room for a sink, and anyone who had to sit had to grasp their knees and cannonball backwards onto the bowl while pulling the door closed on the way down, but Mr. Bruce had done it. He made it possible for two people to go to the bathroom at the same time! It must have been like living in Downton Abbey.
Anyway, what I was trying to get to before I mentioned my neighbor and their ritzy kitchen toilet was that aside from our singular shower and toilet situation, the bathroom only had one tiny sink and above that sink, was a medicine cabinet. Remember those? These days, people tend to glue massive plate glass mirrors to their bathroom walls and store their stuff on or in a vanity, but back in 1957, houses had pedestal sinks and medicine cabinets. The company that built our house must’ve bought these by the tractor-trailer load because every house on the street had the same style, mounted above an identical sink and below an identical light.
The medicine cabinet was recessed between the wall studs, which would have made it about fifteen inches wide. It was no more than twenty inches high, and ours had the hinge on the right, but it could have been on the left in a different house had the ambidextrous cabinet been turned upside down. Open the mirrored door, and it had a rack on the reverse side with spots for a half dozen toothbrushes, which back then, were replaced only when the bristles were completely worn away, and what was left of the toothbrush fell through the hole in the rack. Replace a toothbrush every three months? Not in my house.
“Mom … I wore off the last bristle,” I said, as I scrubbed away with my toothpaddle. “Use your sister’s and I’ll get you a new one on Saturday when I go shopping,” she replied. Which she did, with bristles stiff enough to scrub grease off the backyard grill. “Don’t worry, it’ll soften up,” she’d say in anticipation of this new toothbrush lasting through high school.
There were other items besides toothbrushes in the medicine cabinet, some of them even related to medicine: Band-Aids (dots and strips), Mercurochrome, throat lozenges, Coca-Cola syrup, baby aspirin and gross adult stuff such as foot powder and denture cream, but there was one item up in the top corner that I could never figure out. It must have come with the house because it was always there, yet it was never moved. One day, I asked Mom what it was.
“Mom, what’s this?” I asked as I held up the dusty container. “That’s dental floss, now put it back,” she said, as if it was a sacred talisman and somehow the universe would find out that it had been moved. Well, she may as well have said it was dental pencils because I still had no idea what it was or why it was in the bathroom. It was somehow tooth-related, I knew that much, but not even our dentist used this, so curiosity got the better of me and one day I locked the bathroom door and opened it up.
Inside, there was a spool of fine, waxy string, and my first thought was that it was used to reweave old toothbrushes. That made perfect sense to me, but why buy a new toothbrush when we had a toothbrush reweaving kit in the house? I had to find out about this dental floss.
Since nobody in my family seemed to be using this stuff, I took off with the roll and asked my friends if they knew what it was. They all took turns studying it as if it had landed from space but nobody knew what it was used for—except for one kid that everybody called Butchie. Butchie’s real name was a mystery, but he’d show up in the group every once in a while when his parents didn’t have him facing a corner in their living room. Butchie was what we now call a spirited child, but we all knew him for what he truly was—utterly and completely nuts. Still, he knew how to use dental floss and he was proud to let us know too. “That’s the tooth pullin’ string!” he said loudly.
The image of this filled in its own blanks as we all pictured Butchie’s father taking home dentistry to an exciting new level, using dental floss to yank out the wiggly baby teeth of his younger children. With a satisfied sigh and the mystery at least partially solved, I went back home and made a set of waxy streamers for my bike handlebars before returning what was left of the floss to the medicine cabinet. I was careful to line the canister back up where it came from in case someone discovered that it had been stirred, and as far as I can remember, it was still there when I moved out years later.
P O S T S C R I P T
By this point, reasonable people might be asking themselves how this story came to be, and in the short time we have left, I’ll tell you.
A few nights back, I was ninety-nine percent asleep before Mrs. G. was finished getting ready for bed, when she suddenly asked me what sort of floss I preferred. This is not a question one can prepare for while sleeping, so I mumbled something like, “I don’t care … the regular kind,” but that didn’t help solve her dilemma.
“C’mon, which one?” she asked, leaning over the bed and holding up two small, empty containers to help me choose. “This one or this one. We’re all out.” I found this impossible to believe, since they put so much in those little containers, but there it was. We were out of floss. Even the awful generic roll was empty. Given the urgent tone in her voice, I assumed she was ready to drive to the store in her pajamas and slippers at 11:30 in the evening to restock the floss supply.
“The regular kind. The kind the dental hygienist uses. The kind the dentist gives out as samples. Not the slippery Teflon tape stuff that I have to wind around my fingers until they turn blue. Floss. Not tape. Minty is OK. And not the generic stuff that’s made out of recycled razor blades,” I said in one long, groggy burst, and then went back to sleep.
The next day, she came home with a jumbo-sized, two hundred yard spool of the good stuff, and even though we both floss daily, this should still last close to a year. Later that night, when I finished brushing with my fancy rechargeable toothbrush with the proper bristles and the sonic whatever and the two-minute timer that pulses every thirty seconds, I lugged that huge floss reel out of the top drawer of the vanity, and snapped off a nice, clean foot or so and went at it. When I was all done, I was about as happy as a modern tooth-caring man could be.
And that is how I came to write about a medicine cabinet in the house bought by my parents in 1957, a house that did indeed come with everything, including one enigmatic roll of dental floss.