“I’m part of the hot water bottle generation,” announces my friend and student, Pansie. She is sitting at the table in the third seat on the right, where she always sits, every Tuesday morning during our Creative Writing class at the North Oakland Senior Center.
Because she has difficulty walking, she takes a seat as soon as she comes through the door. She pulls a small rolling suitcase behind her, full of photographs, postcards, papers and notebooks. Pansie uses a cane to balance herself.
When she finally settles down into her chair, she spreads her writing materials in front of her. She has on a straw hat with a pink fabric rose tucked into the brim. Her glasses hang around her neck on a beaded chain. No matter what the temperature, she always wears a crocheted white glove on the hand she writes with. I need to ask her about that sometime.
But then, there are so many things I want to ask her.
Today she’s got my attention with the hot water bottle comment. “You don’t even know what a hot water bottle is, do you?”
I shrug. “I think so,” I answer, but I’m not sure. I vaguely remember a scary reddish rubber implement stuffed behind the towels under the vanity sink of my parents bathroom, but I don’t ever recall seeing it in use.
“In my day every house had a hot water bottle,” continues Pansie. “And there were attachments so you could turn it into an enema and douche bag.”
She laughs. “I bet you don’t know what those things are either.”
Even though I am fifty years old, Pansie treats me as if I am a child just learning about the world. In other circles, with different friends, I feel quite ancient, but Pansie makes me feel like a know-nothing little girl and, in some ways, she’s right.
Not only are Pansie and I distanced in age by over twenty-five years, but race and class also separate us. When I tell Pansie about my childhood, she clicks her tongue and says, “You were rich, weren’t you?”
“Middle class,” I answer, but to Pansie that is the same as being wealthy.
“Tell me more about the hot water-douche bag-enema thing,” I say. I am constantly surprised and delighted with Pansie’s forthrightness. Sometimes I’m unnerved.
“Well girl,” she says drawing out the “irl” in the word girl so that it has two syllables. “Everybody had one. Everybody!”
She looks around the table at the other seniors and they all nod in agreement. “And they hung it on a hook on the back of their bathroom door,” she continues.
“Oh yeah,” say the others.
“It was always there, in every house, and when you shut the bathroom door it would swing against it.” More heads nod in accord.
“Sometimes people would cover it with their bathrobes to try to hide it, but that didn’t matter cuz you always knew it was there.”
“Wow,” I say. “Kind of a personal thing to be hanging out in front of everyone wasn’t it?”
“You had to hang it up!” she answers, “cuz it was full of water and you needed to let it drain. Otherwise it would rot. Back then nobody could afford to buy a new one. Now people use electric heating pads for their aches and pains and pills when they’re constipated and nobody douches anymore, though in my opinion I think they should.”
She chuckles. “But nobody cares about that stuff. Only us old folks, the hot water bottle-plus generation.”
Everybody laughs. “Those were the days,” someone shouts.
“Yes,” sighs Pansie. “Those were the days. But come on now, you’re the teacher. You got somethin’ for us to learn?”
There is a twinkle in Pansie’s eyes and I know that she knows that there is really only one person learning in this classroom. That’s me, just a relative youngster from the heating pad, pill-taking, non-douche bag generation.