Thursday, December 03, 2009


The well-informed reader will know that 'clyster' is a word for an old-fashioned appliance much favoured by medical men during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. It was somewhat fearsome, and modern practitioners would undoubtedly frown on a solidly made, reusable rectal syringe, with a long metal plunger and a pointy metal nozzle.

Occasionally one finds them in antique stores, comically mis-identified by the proprietor, who may never have conceived of such a thing.

Nowadays rubber squeeze bulbs and softer insertion devices are more common.

Although I really wonder how common.... outside of certain fetishist circles on Polk Street, or among aficionados of strange health-regimens, most people balk at the very idea of an enema.

[Per Wikipedia: 'An enema (plural enemata or enemas) is the procedure of introducing liquids into the rectum and colon via the anus. The increasing volume of the liquid causes rapid expansion of the lower intestinal tract, often resulting in very uncomfortable bloating, cramping, powerful peristalsis, a feeling of extreme urgency and complete evacuation.....']


My mother kept a device in the medicine cabinet which she fondly referred to as 'the trusty old family clyster'. Rubber squeeze bulb, flexible tubing, smooth plug-like nozzle.
Very pink, at once both obscene and clinical looking.
To the best of my knowledge it had never once been used.

She had acquired the enema shortly after marriage - possibly a wedding gift from one of her college friends - and there is probably some truth to the rumour that she had initially put it in the nightstand of the guest bedroom when my grandmother Eileen came to visit. My mother did not particularly like her mother-in-law at that time, and seeding the guest bedroom with that device was, perhaps, a manifestation of passive aggressive "hospitality".

It may also have been a comment of culinary disdain - Winona had been told that she was a poor cook (true), and Eileen did food in a rather severe Protestant fashion (string beans in the pressure cooker for half an hour).
The two women were rivals for the rank of worst cook within the family. Both had come from households with servants, both had been in the military, both had lived rather bachelor-like independent lives for several years.

Such circumstances are not exactly conducive to any great culinary anal-retention, you will agree.

Digestive issues may have been a recurring subject of conversation.

I have no idea how my grandmother reacted when she found the enema.
She visited us several more times over the next two decades.
I recall that she and my mother got along well enough in later years, but those visits were never-the-less a strain on my mother.

[Once my mother refused to speak to me for a week after grandmother and I recited most of Macbeth at each other one afternoon. She was not particularly fond of Shakespeare, and resented us having that much in common. Such pedestrian literary tastes! Why had I bothered learning that Scottish play, when I could have, and should have, memorized Beowulf?!!? "Hwaet! We gardena in geardagum, theod-kyninga, thrym gefrunon, hu tha aethelingas ellen fremedon..... ".]


When we moved to Valkenswaard, the enema was stashed in the bathroom cabinet. Where it would inevitably be discovered by a cleaning lady at some point.
This would be followed by a startled wail or a howl - if they recognized what it was.
My mother lived for those moments.

For some reason we had a whole succession of cleaning ladies. Only two stayed with us for very long - Mrs. Geene and Mrs. Vos. Both were strong-minded woman, very admirable.

No, I have no idea who may have ended up with that enema in the years since my mother died.
Nor do I really want to know.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.


Tzipporah said...

The more I learn of your family, the more I wonder how you became so relatively normal.

The back of the hill said...

The more I learn of your family, the more I wonder how you became so relatively normal.

"I learn it from a book!"


Normalcy is the new relative.

Anonymous said...

Your family sounds delightfully dysfunctional.

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