Sunday, September 28, 2014

Menses and Other Anatomical Catastrophes

A new session of Life Writing has begun, and I've enrolled for the fifth time. Trying to find a common theme for students at all different writing levels (all women this time around), our teacher asked us to write about our first experience with "the curse"--the biological indication that a girl has become a woman. Here's my story:


Two things happened when I was three years old that made me believe life is precarious. One day I saw my ten-year-old uncle, Joe, chase a ball into the street and get hit by a car. Another day, at the grocery store, a Lifesaver got stuck in my windpipe, and I couldn’t breathe for a long moment. Fortunately, both Joe and I survived. When I was older I learned that he’d sustained a concussion in that incident but hadn’t had any other serious injuries. As for my own close call, I was scared and upset but perfectly healthy after the quick-thinking, white-aproned grocer grabbed me up by the ankles and whacked me on the back, propelling the green Lifesaver out of my airway and onto the dark-planked floor. Joe’s accident taught me why Mother had spanked me every time I’d wandered into the street. From my own frightful experience, I learned that most Lifesavers were edible and delicious, but the green ones could kill you.

That’s what small children do. They take their limited experiences, jumble them all together with random bits and pieces of information they’ve heard God-knows-where, and try to fit everything into some kind of framework that makes sense to their fledgling logic.

Like most toddlers, I’d been schooled early on about basic anatomical features--eyes, nose, fingers, toes--and I knew two things about my belly: 1) the food and drink I swallowed (and a penny one time) ended up in there, and 2) people seemed to like to poke the button on the outside of it. Belly, tummy and stomach were synonymous to me; I applied the three terms interchangeably to both the outside and inside of what I now know is my abdomen.

My little sister, Judy, was born 44 days after my fourth birthday. I don’t remember whether or not I knew then that she had been carried in my mother’s belly, but such knowledge might explain why I imagined the human midsection to be a large, hollow vessel. I believed that everything I ate and drank simply sloshed around in the bottom of that big container until I sat on the potty and emptied it. When I learned that an important organ called the heart occupied that same space, I pictured it as a bright red, valentine-shaped object floating untethered in a sludge of chewed bananas, creamed corn and cherry Kool-Aid. That’s when my ill-informed, child’s logic kicked in and my worries began. How big was my heart, anyway? What if I accidentally pooped it out, which was what had happened to the penny?

Those concerns persisted even after I started school. Every time I learned the name of another organ--the more of them I imagined floundering around inside me--the greater I perceived the danger that one of them might pop out of my body and cause me to die. Maybe if I’d ever asked someone if such a thing could happen, I’d have received an answer that ended my anxiety, but I didn’t ask, and no adult I ever overheard speaking in casual conversation about a lung or a kidney bothered to mention that human organs are safely secured.

The fear of losing a vital body part wasn’t all consuming, but it lingered at the back of my mind, where I could take it out and mull it over every so often. By the time I was seven or eight, having never heard of anyone dying from a popped-out organ, nor having ever been warned about it, I concluded it must be an extremely rare occurrence and that children were much more likely to die as a result of running with scissors or playing with matches. I began to relax, lulled into a false sense of security that would blow up in my face a few years later.

One summer night when I was eleven, preparing to take a bath, I peeled off my pastel, day-of-the-week panties and saw a dark red stain. Unsettled, not certain the stain was what it appeared to be, I touched a wad of toilet tissue to myself. All the repressed fear rushed back with the speed and force of a rocket. It was happening, just as I’d always dreaded. Something was terribly wrong with my insides; I would probably die before morning.

Wrapped in a towel, I opened the bathroom door just a crack and called loudly to my mother, who was sitting on the front porch with the rest of the family. By the time she got to the bathroom, I was sobbing. I showed her the evidence of my impending doom, and she rolled her eyes and smiled. What the heck? I couldn’t believe how unconcerned she was; it made me cry even harder. Finally noticing the degree of my distress, Mother patted me on one hunched-up shoulder and began to explain: “Don’t worry,” she said calmly. “This is something that happens to all women when they’re old enough to have a baby.” That concept floored me. As far as I knew, a woman had to be married before she could have a baby, and I wouldn’t be old enough for that until I was at least eighteen. This had to be a big mistake.

Mother went on to tell me that this period-thing would happen every month for many, many, many years. She dug into the cabinet underneath the sink, pulled out the blue box of sanitary napkins and a tangled elastic belt, showed me how to rig everything up, and promised she’d buy me a belt of my own the next day. (As far as I recall, she never said a word that night about the possibility of cramps or the probability of mood swings. That information would be doled out later on a need-to-know basis.)

After a few minutes, Mother left the bathroom, no doubt in a hurry to share the embarrassing news with my grandparents, the same way I’d heard her make a little announcement after I’d tried on my first training bra a few months earlier. I locked the door behind her and considered what to do next. The idea of tainting a tubful of bathwater was disturbing, so I decided on a sponge bath at the sink instead. Tears continued to trickle down my face while I washed away summer’s dust and sweat and pondered the whole overwhelming situation.

My thoughts soon turned to sanitary napkins. I was already familiar with them, having been sent to the corner drugstore numerous times to buy a box of them for Mother, but I’d had no idea what their purpose was. A horrible thought occurred to me. What if some of the neighbors had noticed me carrying those big blue boxes down the street and thought I’d bought them for myself? How embarrassing! Another alarming thought popped into my head. For as long as I could remember, my grandparents had rented an upstairs bedroom to male college students, two roommates at a time, individual students moving in or out as the semesters changed. How many times, I wondered, had one of those boys walked past me while I was playing with my dolls in the living room? How many of them had watched me gently lay my Toni doll on her bed, where her carefully coiffed, brunette head would rest peacefully on the thick, white, gauze-covered Kotex pad that was her pillow?

Now my tears were angry ones. If Mother had only told me sooner about monthly periods, I could have avoided both the public display of personal items and the fright I’d experienced minutes earlier. When I finally mustered the courage to leave the bathroom, Mother must have read the expression on my face and realized I was mad at her. She explained as we went to bed that night that her own first period hadn’t arrived until she was sixteen, so she’d thought she still had plenty of time to fill me in.

Maybe so. But considering all the conversations we should have had--and didn’t--before I grew up, got married and had children of my own, I suspect the real reason was that she just didn’t like to talk about those kinds of things.

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