Friday, January 22, 2016
How My Mother Started the Winter Storm Toilet Paper Craze
There’s a strong possibility that my mother started the we-need-toilet-paper-because-it’s-going-to-snow mania.
Let me explain.
When we first came to the United States, we withstood tropical weather for the first few months (we arrived in late June) and it seemed inconceivable that a change of season could bring the weather from 100°F to below freezing. My mother’s knowledge of weather patterns was limited. She had lived in Paris and vacationed in the south of France. During World War II, she spent time in Algeria, and at war’s end had returned with my father to the French capital, where it rarely snowed.
Washington in the summer was an entirely different story. The city was sweltering, subtropical, swampy and mosquito-ridden—so much so that British diplomats considered serving in the District of Columbia a hardship post. It’s true, you can look it up.
We spent that first summer in a state of abject heat exhaustion. Large Sears & Roebuck upright fans moved the air around, a sad and sluggish attempt at comfort, and I remember that even the tap water was warm coming out of the faucet. On occasion, we would drive to Chevy Chase Lake, a large swimming pool a few miles away that, on summer days, was literally standing room only—a thousand sufferers shoulder to shoulder in tepid water, a sea of pink and light blue bathing caps, ruffled women’s bathing suits, and screaming children. This was a far cry from the beaches of Benodet in Brittany.
Four months later, six inches of snow fell on the Washington area. My mother, who still shopped daily à l’européenne armed with a five dollar bill and a string bag, was completely unprepared. We had no bread, no eggs or butter, no vegetables or meat. Worse, we had one roll of toilet paper that she hid for her personal use.
About a week later it snowed again. My mother hurried to the store slipping and sliding in her recently purchased 1951 Lincoln. She bought five pounds of hamburgers, a sack of potatoes, onions, three chickens, bouillon cubes, celery, and fifteen rolls of toilet paper. At the counter, the checkout lady smiled and pointed to the pile of rolls. She said, “You’re ready for the storm!”
Mt mother’s English was still rudimentary. She tried to explain that in post-war Paris, you stocked up in times of emergency, but the only word the checkout lady understood was ‘war.’ This was when the Cold War was raging and the Soviets were threatening to bury the US. War, many thought, was imminent.
A lady in line heard ‘war’ too. She rushed back to the toilet paper aisle and loaded up. So did another woman, and another. Word of war spread. Soon the store was cleaned out of toilet paper, detergent, RC Cola and chocolate bars. My mother drove home, unaware of the trend she’d started and that endures to this day.
This is a true story. I was there.