Have a Very Sterile Christmas

Jocelyn Pihlaja essays

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As we entered the family gathering, setting down boxes of gifts, shedding coats, assuring greeters that, yes, it sure was cold out there, I eyeballed the bathroom door.

It was open. I could dash in and relieve myself.

But damn. My path was blocked. Gesturing to a stack of envelopes, Aunt Nancy leaned in and whispered, “I made a scavenger hunt for the kids. They’ll come and ask you a question, and then you give them the envelope. Yours is the last one in the hunt, so it contains the present: money!”

Tucking away the envelope, I returned to my quest for the toilet—but first I needed to greet my father-in-law, mother-in-law, first-cousin-once-removed-in-law, and great-uncle-in-law. At such times, I wish for a five-minute buffer upon entering a social situation during which I can remove my outerwear, scamper to the bathroom, find a drink, and apply a full-body fluff. Only then am I ready to play nice.

The reality, however, is that I end up standing in the foyer for 20 minutes, gratefully nodding at my free-roaming-thanks-to-introversion husband when he presses a glass of wine into my hand. Being held hostage by a foyer is infinitely more pleasant when one is hooked up to an alcohol drip.

(True fact: “Alcohol Drip” was my nickname during college.)

In addition to wishing for space and time when entering a crowded house, another complication to any social situation is that my reserved children hold a tight orbit. When they were younger, they were in my arms; later, they clung to my legs; joined me hip-to-hip; stood shoulder-to-shoulder. Currently, my teenager likes to glue herself to my back or, better yet, hold my hand.

Thus, the kids were still in the entry, too, looking longingly at the living room. Attempting to get us out of the foyer, I began to shuffle. With kids cemented to my hips, it felt like the world’s slowest six-legged race—a challenge made more difficult by attempts to balance a goblet of wine while pushing three abreast through question askers (my favorite event in the Holiday Olympics!). Shuffling, I considered the problem of the children. As the only two under 40, they would be at loose ends unless I could cruise director them into an activity. Certainly, they’re good observers and listeners, but after not too long, conversation about politicians and food shelves loses its luster. At that point, the family gathering collapses into hours of bored kids catching Mommy’s ear and whispering, “How much longer?”

This is why we always bring a bag of diversions. Breaking out a deck of cards, I marshaled a few relatives and hoped that once everyone got settled, I could dash for the much-needed bathroom. Naturally, as I was about to peel away and skitter towards relief, my son announced he was done and wanted me to take over his position in the game. Clamping my bladder shut, I grabbed his cards.

Minutes later, when the call of “Dinner is served!” went out, I was more than ready to mound a mountain of mashers onto my plate.

But first: a quick trip to the bathroom already.

With everyone futzing around about who would be at which table and who would sit by whom, I knew I had a straight shot to the porcelain, no friendly conversation required.

At last I was able to whiz in to the whizzer and experiencccccccccceeeeeeee ssssssssssssweet relief. Standing up, I reached towards the seashell-shaped soap—BUT WAIT WHAT HO?

My glance dropped to the toilet and its contents. There was something odd in the bowl.

Taking a step closer, peering more deeply into the xanthous water, I tried to riddle out what was coasting merrily upon the foam. It appeared to be some sort of raft captained by Abraham Lincoln. 

One step closer, bending down.


I was wearing yoga pants. They had no pockets. I’d been given an envelope to conceal for a couple of hours. Personal policy dictates that I not jam envelopes into my bra in front of relations over the age of fifty. So, bizarrely, I’d folded the envelope in half and stuck it down the back of my pants. Then I’d forgotten all about it.

For a quiet moment, I stood staring into the bowl, marveling at how a water rinse revealed the money hidden inside the envelope. It was hypnotic, the way Abe was just floating around, looking serene while black ink melted all over him. That man was a saint.

All too soon, reality came crashing in, and I was gripped by a quick nanosecond of Choice: reaching in or flushing.

A quick mental scan of my wallet revealed no five dollar bills. If I flushed, I couldn’t replace. Without the five dollars, I would have a problem with both the aunt and the “Mommy’s terribly sorry she peed on your Christmas present” kid. What’s more, a business-sized envelope and a five-dollar bill confound the design of a toilet’s plumbing, and I had no desire to pay a professional $200 an hour on Christmas Eve to come snake Abe out of the plumbing.

The only sensible option was to reach in and grab the thing.

It’s not like I’ve never been covered in my own urine before. Additionally, the only thing on the planet filthier than a kitchen sponge is money. Also, urine is sterile. Really, I’d just done that fiver a favor.

Rolling up my sleeve, I plunged my hand in, grabbed the envelope, dumped the whole soppy mess into the sink, and ran hot water. Tearing off five feet of toilet paper, I mopped the envelope and cradled Abe into a double-ply pillow.

Gently, I straightened his cravat and smoothed his hair—before crumpling him into a wad and jamming him down my left cup.

Then, ready to face the holiday, I opened the bathroom door, threw my shoulders back, and went in search of a seat at the table—

and a second glass of wine.


About the Author

Jocelyn Pihlaja

Jocelyn has been teaching writing at the college level since 1991. She has a husband who cooks dinner every night, kids who hold up hands requesting "silence" when their reading is interrupted, and a blog, .

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