We’ve gone without toilet paper before.

An image of a woman on the toilet with a basket of newspaper strips and a magazine caddy on the floor, her middle fingertip peeks through the middle of a folded piece of newspaper.

I spent all of Friday writing informational, factual, calming, encouraging, and supportive communications about COVID-19. Emails, an article (Changing Our Habits and Getting Creative: Church in the Age of COVID-19), texts, and about 1,000 more emails. It was a great day. I felt like I was part of helping people navigate this new reality by providing more light than heat.

But my Facebook feed was full of photos of empty store shelves where toilet paper usually was–empty shelves at megastore after megastore.

Which reminded me of a story from my family archives.

My dad was born in occupied Holland during World War II. He is the 4th of 7 kids, so he’s got 3 older brothers who remember growing up during wartime. I’ve told some of the stories elsewhere (here and here), but this one is new to this space. It has to do with toilet paper.

In September 1944, just in time for the Hunger Winter, my dad’s family moved out of the city of Velp and to Ermolo, where my Oma’s sister lived. The Holtrops owned a soup factory and had a big house in the country that could kind of fit the three families who wound up living there that winter. The Nazis had long commandeered all the actually edible food from the factory, but left them fish heads and other odds and ends that they ground and turned into gruel to nourish themselves–they ate in two shifts, younger kids first so they couldn’t see the older kids and adults gag their way through meals. After all, the youngest kids didn’t remember a time when food was delicious.

So of course there was no toilet paper. It would have been an unimaginable luxury. But it’s not like people stop going to the bathroom. Here’s what my uncle told me they did:

  • Next to the toilet was a basket with strips of newspaper.
  • When you finished your business you folded one and only one strip of paper.
  • Then you poked a hole in the middle of the folded strip.
  • You pushed your middle fingertip through the hole and used that to wipe your bum–your finger. You’d use your finger.
  • Then you used the newspaper to clean off your finger.
  • If that didn’t do the job you had to refold the paper and wipe again. With your finger.


Why didn’t they just flat-out use a few of those strips and leave the finger out of it? After all, during the same time period my mother’s family in Michigan used the traditional Sears catalogue in their outhouse.

I’m guessing because even the newspaper they had was rare and no, they could not spare a strip. It’s possible that it was often an underground Resistance newspaper, like this one that one of my uncles still has.

I really hope we don’t get to that point in this country. Also, I don’t get a newspaper anymore, so I’d have to use magazines and that sounds like it’d be ouchier. Do I need to stop recycling my magazines now so I have a stack all ready? Then again, if the hoarders keep snapping up all the T.P. maybe I’ll just buy a toilet-top bidet. I will not do what a friend had in the outhouse as a kid and use dry corn cobs!!!

Hoarders of T.P., I know that you’re anxious and you’re trying to control what you can, but you’ve created a problem. When the plush white rolls are back on the shelves, please let others have some. You will be okay. My father’s family all survived their finger-newspaper-toilet-paper ordeal. Well, they survived, but their humor and conversational topics definitely run to the scatalogical.

And now, because I can’t resist, here is what I learned at the Kent County Health Department today that is helping me not panic:

How is the virus transmitted:

  • Via droplets that an infected person coughs or sneezes out. The virus is only on our hands and hard surfaces because people cover coughs and sneezes with their hands or not at all, and then touch stuff.
  • The contact zone is within 6 feet of an individual with active COVID-19 for more than 10 minutes (walking past someone is not enough to get the virus).
  • If someone is infected but not showing symptoms, or if they have mild symptoms, their chance of transmitting the virus is similarly low—the disease is more likely to be transmitted the worse the symptoms are. Read that again. It is very good news, especially about our children as disease vectors. They’re apparently great at spreading the common cold and the stomach flu, less great at spreading COVID-19, because the disease affects them very mildly.

What you can do as an individual:

  • Wash your hands often.
  • Stay home if you’re sick.
  • Cover your mouth with something other than your hand when you cough and sneeze.
  • No handshakes. No hugging.
  • Limit touches to hard surfaces.
  • Spread out! Limit the amount of time you are less than 6 feet away from members of the public for 10 minutes or more. This is the virus transmission zone.
  • Before you visit someone, ask if anyone is sick, if anyone has a fever or a new cough. If so, go to a virtual visit (phone call or video chat). If not, maintain safe distance and no handshakes/hugs.
  • Disinfect hard surfaces regularly.

The story is the heirloom

I have a folder called Family Stories. It started with my Oma’s funeral. I’d gone around that day, asking people to remember the sayings she had, “You haff to laff,”  “It comes handy-in,” “It’s an unicum [oonickum],” “I simple cannot,” and, to her own children when they were growing up, “Act normal and you’re acting crazy enough” (except said in Dutch). I wrote down every remembrance, every story, every detail someone told me.

And I’ve done that ever since, whether with my family or my husband’s, because I know that if I don’t scribble them down somewhere, I’ll forget. There are stories that stick with me, like the Nazi soldiers coming to the house for my Opa (because he worked in the Resistance) and his sister-in-law dressing him in a lace cap and nightgown, plunking him in a rocking chair and handing him a baby, and then showing the Germans around the house, “See. No men here. Just women and babies. Women and babies.” They bought it, and he was safe. That one’s so good I’m putting it in the second David and Saul novel, with David getting the nightgown and baby treatment. Or one my father’s earliest memories: he was playing outside during the war and the air raid siren came on, and his mother (and nanny?) screamed for him to come inside, but he wouldn’t, because he was only two, and it was fun outside.

There is one story that I’ve been wanting to write about in a more formal way for a long time: the time my mother’s house burned down when she was 6 and she managed to salvage something both silly and important and everyone laughed at her. catapult* magazine gave me that opportunity, and I’m grateful to them for it.

Even in the writing of that piece, I found out things I didn’t know before. I had to call my mother for clarification and learned that the outhouse she used until she was 7 was a two-holer, and that the Sears and Spiegel catalogues were the toilet paper of choice. Also that they moved into the basement of the new house the year after the old one burned down, and lived in just the basement for a few years while her Uncle Herm built the house above them, as they could afford it. This was apparently a common way to build houses back then.

Don’t get me wrong, I love every item I have from prior generations, and I recently made clear to my dad that I don’t want him to give away their art after he and my mother have died (which won’t be for many, many, many years). But the real heirlooms are the stories, the reminders of different ways of life, of the fears and struggles and triumphs of those who eventually made me (and my husband). The fun stories and the not-so-fun ones. They’re all important.

So I’ll keep jotting down the details as my family members let them slip. I’ll keep stealing good stuff for my fiction. And I’ll keep turning them into more formal pieces, so I can learn even more. ETA: Since publishing this, I learned two things I got wrong — there were 5 kids in the house, and she only had to run 1/4 mile to the neighbor.

When my mother was six, in the summer of 1947, her home burned down. Her mother was in the barn, and the four kids were in the house. After the four-year-old noticed fire licking out of the wood-stove pipe in the kitchen, my mother and her older sister got the kids out of the house and then ran a mile to the neighbor’s — he didn’t have a phone, either, but he had a car and could drive to a phone.

The fire department doused the flames, but the house was a total loss.

Their neighbors followed the truck, gathering to commiserate. Once the ruins cooled, the kids took turns dashing into the house to see what they could salvage, tossing the spoils on the grass. My mother was very proud of one thing she managed to save: my grandmother’s ratty house shoes.

Everyone burst into laughter, leaving her mortified and confused.

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