“Some women bleed sometimes. But it’s nothing for you to worry about.”
* * *
My introduction to the joys of womanhood was … limited. The only reason that my mother sat me down for “The Talk” at all is that I was 10 years old and going away to Girl Scout Camp for two weeks. Among the paperwork to be completed prior to my great adventure was a medical form which my mom had to sign. She was required to check off a box indicating that her little sweetheart was fully aware of menstruation, should it occur at some point during the two weeks of camp. Being a good Catholic, she’d never consider checking off a box without doing what it told her to do.
The moment of “The Talk” was extremely uncomfortable for my mom, who shied away from anything that would lead, no matter how circuitously, to sex.
Whenever she had to deal with anything the least bit uncomfortable, Mom had the unfortunate habit of developing severe belching, while red lines (kind of like vertical hives) climbed up her neck. For my part, I’d do anything I could to avoid having this happen to her; it was extremely embarrassing, and filled me with guilt that I’d somehow caused her pain.
So I never considered asking for an elaboration; if bleeding women made her that uncomfortable, I didn’t need to know anything more.
I spent the next two years unconcerned about those elusive bleeding women. My friends were not the kind who’d whisper about such things. Maybe because we were all the oldest in our families; there were no big sisters on whom to spy, or who might share their secrets of womanhood with us.
* * *
The summer after 6th grade, I spent several weeks at Linda’s grandparent’s farm. Linda and I had a daily ritual: riding ponies to the general store eight miles away to buy Mountain Dews. We’d recently discovered this amazing beverage and looked forward to reaching down into the store’s cooler to pull out a frosty bottle, pop off the top with the opener built into the cooler, and take a long, slow swig. Mountain Dews, we’d agreed, had to be the greatest invention of the decade.
We’d roam the back roads near Ingleside, Maryland on the ponies, Nellie and Sugarfoot bareback, using bridles and reins fashioned from chunks of rope – we didn’t need much else to reach nirvana. One afternoon, Linda’s Pop-pop found an old saddle. This, we decided, was a huge step up in our equestrian lives. As I recall, the saddle had no size relationship to the backs of either pony. Nellie in particular, was quite resentful, and would roll over shortly after whomever was riding her had gone down the path about a half mile, pinning rider and saddle smack-dab in the middle of the dirt road.
Eventually, we decided that we’d just use the saddle for Sugarfoot, the smaller of the two ponies. By age 12, both of us were getting a bit gangly for either steed, but we were horse nuts who’d do anything to be riding, even though riding the Shetland pony Sugarfoot was getting quite unwieldy. Our spindly legs dangled almost to the ground. With the saddle, however, we could stick our feet in stirrups for a little bit of elevation.
We concocted a plan: switch ponies mid-ride. That way, we’d each have the short, but saddled, Sugarfoot for half the ride, and the more comfortable barebacked Nellie for the other half.
Stopping near a wooded area to switch ponies, we also decided to switch pants, since one of us was wearing shorts which were not very comfortable on the saddle. As Linda started to put her foot into my pants, she noticed something. “Hey,” she said, “do you know that you’ve got your period?”
I’d never heard the word period used in any context except as punctuation. But I kept my cool.
“I do?” I asked.
“Yeah.” She pointed to a dark streak on the inside of the pants she’d been about to put on. “I have some Kotex in my suitcase,” she added.
“Okay,” I said. I was clueless.
* * *
Although I did recognize the word “Kotex.” I’d seen it in ads in my mom’s women’s magazines and in ladies’ rooms whenever I went to a restaurant with my parents. In fact, when I was about eight, and we were taking guests to a fancy restaurant, I excused myself to use the restroom.
Once there, I noticed that the rectangular metal box on the restroom wall offered to “refresh” me for a mere nickel. Why, I had a nickel just hanging out doing nothing in my white patent-leather purse with the gold chain. And surely I could use some refreshing. I deposited the nickel, turned the handle, and a grey cardboard box dropped into the slot at the bottom.
I opened the box. A soft white rectangle with two white “handles” at either end unfolded in my hand. But wait! There was more! Holding the white rectangle under my arm, I shook the box and two safety pins fell into my hand. A bonus. Just like Crackerjack! I tucked the rectangle back into the box and the box into my purse to await future refreshing.
The opportunity came a few hours later. We were all packed into my dad’s Oldsmobile, taking our guests for a Sunday drive through the rolling Brandywine. It was a warm afternoon. “Hmm, I could use some refreshing,” I remember thinking.
I opened my purse, extracting the pad, and began gently patting my cheeks. Our guests, who were sitting in the backseat next to me, began chuckling loudly as my mom turned to see what was going on.
Horror spread across my mom’s face. She screamed, “Marilyn, what are you DOING!!???”
I continued patting. “Refreshing myself,” I explained, not sure what the fuss was about.
My mother grabbed the Kotex. “Where did you get that?” she growled.
“I bought it in the Ladies Room at the restaurant.”
Her behavior was not making any sense. Maybe, I thought, my mom was turning into a werewolf or something.
“You are too young to be fooling with this!” she snarled, quickly stuffing the offending Kotex into her purse. By this time, our guests and my dad had convulsed into paroxysms of laughter.
I was both confused and embarrassed. But because I’d seen the telltale red stripes on my Mom’s neck, I knew better than to pursue the issue. My mother lived in a painful and complex world that no one else seemed to inhabit.
* * *
So here I was, some four years later, confronted with Kotex again. Back in our room, Linda handed me two. “That’s all I have,” she said, “but I shouldn’t be getting mine again for another two weeks.”
“Thanks,” I said. I took the Kotex. I was beginning to put the pieces together. This was why my mom had freaked out when I “refreshed” myself with Kotex. This was that mysterious bleeding she alluded to when I was 10. I supposed I was one of “those women” who bled. Oh well. Linda didn’t seem very concerned, so I wasn’t either.
We were at the farm for another whole week. My first Kotex was soaked through after about three days and phew, did it stink. I figured I’d better use the second one. My clothes were getting pretty bloody too. I was beginning to wonder if it would ever stop. Apparently, from my brief exchange with Linda, this period thing was going to come and go. And at somewhat regular intervals.
At the end of that week, Linda’s parents picked us up at the farm and dropped me off at my house. By this time, I’d gone through both Kotex, and most of my underpants and shorts were pretty well stained. I threw all my dirty clothes into the hamper outside my bedroom door. I was no longer bleeding, but in any event, I didn’t think this period stuff was something I should bring up to my mom.
The next morning when I woke up, my hamper was empty and my mom wasn’t home.
About a half-hour later she returned with a brown grocery bag. “Come into my room, Honey,” she said. Her eyes looked soft and she smiled slightly, closing the door against the prying eyes of my little sister.
What had I done I wondered? She was sitting on the edge of her bed and patted the spot next to her. Still holding the brown bag.
“I saw,” she whispered, handing me the bag. She belched.
I looked inside. It was a box of Kotex. My mom belched again. I glanced at her and saw that the telltale red stripes were quickly working their way up her neck.
“Uh, thanks,” I said, grabbing the bag and leaving her quickly. Another belch ushered me out of her bedroom.
* * *
By the time my friends and I got to high school, we were openly discussing periods, especially the cramps part. Comparing notes, we’d discovered that Linda had gotten her first period six months before mine. And her mother hadn’t shared any of the Beauty of Becoming a Woman with her either. “I looked in the toilet,” Linda recalled, “and started screaming. I thought I was dying.” She’d admitted she’d been impressed by my calm demeanor, especially after she found out it was my first period.
I don’t know why I was so calm. Was I embarrassed that Linda almost stepped foot into a pair of pants full of blood? Was I just trying to be “cool”? After all, Linda was three whole months older than I, and she never let me forget it. I guess partly it was the way I responded to most things that I thought bothered my mother – by absolutely refusing to let them bother me. I never, ever wanted to be the kind of person who belched and grew stripes. Never.
© 2011 Marilyn Stevens