North Coast Journal


Where have all the duck towels gone?

by Miv Schaaf

For spring I use the special bath mat, the one with yellow ducks swimming in an oval pond. These woodland creatures were already disappearing from towels when I was growing up, although I remember a double-woven one with white swans floating serenely on blue that became, when you turned the towel, changelings (or cousins perhaps), blue swans skimming on a pond of milk.

Another had antlered blue elk pleasantly mired in a yellow swamp at each end of the white towel. And the ducks - where have all the duck towels gone? I have managed to garner only a few from other people's pasts in thrift stores - thin, worn, frayed, becoming rapidly extinct.

When I was little it was natural for all forms of water fauna to inhabit bathrooms. I would have preferred a great blue heron on our Michigan shower door instead of flamingos, but perhaps, accustomed to the humid swamps of Florida, they were more used to steam. And then, too, flamingos seem more concerned with how they look - are we in the pink of condition? - while the heron, a more sensible bird altogether, is simply out to find fish.

It didn't seem then illogical to have waterfowl in the bathroom. They, after all, were puddling about in ponds long before we were: We were the intruders in their world, not they in ours.

And so we came to the water, their water, in a friendly fashion, at least so I thought, ready to enjoy their pools and rapids as they might care to share them with us. Certainly I came not as a conqueror but as a fellow user of their waterways.

Well, I won't go on, but what harm did they do? It was not nice of us to banish these innocent creatures from our bathrooms.

We had one of the last waterfowl bathrooms in Michigan. It was rather hilarious and such a marvelous medley of confusion that it achieved a certain zenith. On the glass shower door three flamingos preened themselves. The wonderfully hectic wallpaper had swans, lotus blossoms, lily pads, reeds all crammed next to each other -- swans' necks barging into blossoms, lily pads careening into swans' stomachs and one frog in a corner hopelessly surveying the whole mess.

It was hardly restful. One did not exactly dawdle at one's bath, probably all to the good since four of us used it. My mother, against my protest, finally papered it over with something so bland as to be unmemorable.

At times I would pry up the corner to see if the frog was still there -- he was not; hopefully, he had progressed to a less populated pond.

What does all this mean -- nothing? No, I think it reveals a basic change in our perception of our world. Then we related water not to taps and faucets but to ponds, rivers, lakes with their rightful inhabiters: frogs, fish, water birds. Then we did not lump animals in a class to eat, exterminate or ignore; we saw them still as individuals. (There was, I remember, one very timid, insecure swan cringing in the north corner of our bathroom and an exceedingly conceited one dead center on the west wall).

Now -- no more ducks. All traces of frogs, lilies, waterfowl have been banished from the bathroom and we are left, bereft of woodland fantasies, to look at marbleized mirrors or frantic geometrics. We are not allowed, while bathing, to paddle in ponds even mentally, to vacation in meadowlands.

No, like the herons who stand in the marsh only to catch fish, our visions are limited. We are to think only of getting clean. Heck. That's no fun.

Miv Schaaf, a resident of Fieldbrook, is a former columnist for the L.A. Times.


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