My Work in Progress is a book for Girls, Ladies, and Women, called From Menarche through Menopause: A Journey Through Time. This is Chapter One for you.
There were six girls and one boy in my family, perhaps my “in” on feminine issues. I was the second oldest, but always felt like the oldest. My brother was the 7th child, the baby. I was a little Mommy when I was 8, patting my little brother’s back to sleep every night, and loving it. Us girls had our “First Talk” in the 70’s, when refrigerators were avocado green, collars were long and sharp, and Led Zepplin’s Stairway to Heaven blared from my room.
“How did you like the book?” my mother asked. It was a Red Book with Chapters on male and female anatomy, menstrual periods, and intercourse. What kind of answer should I give? “Yeah, it was um…it was uhmmmm…Yeah.” I was more stunned than anything. So this is what my parents were doing, this Intercourse thing? This is what every married couple does? Oh my!
I’m not doing any research here on this Chapter; I’m just going by my experience. Being a girl wasn’t particularly problem-prone in the 70’s. I walked to school, thumbed to the beach with my friends, and generally was a “Valley Girl” with blonde-streaked, brunette hair in the summertime. I was in eighth Grade in Catholic School, about to graduate middle school, and our class was going to go on a Field Trip to Disneyland for graduation. I loved Disneyland.
I didn’t pluck my eyebrows or wear makeup when I was 13. I had Wallabees, wasn’t popular in school, and pretty much minded my own business. Except for the radio blaring from my room when my parents were gone, that is. I got straight A’s without really trying, and I liked Composition exams over Multiple Choice ones, because it was easy for me to write. “I Can’t Live” was the first song I recorded onto a tape player then, as well as “A Horse with No Name”.
There were six girls in our family, and most of us were one year apart from one another. Back-to-back babies from a Catholic family with no birth control, I suppose. We weren’t the only ones with a big family at our school. Several families were comprised of more than five kids. That was just the way it was. My brother was the youngest.
I looked at the Red Book again. The rest of the book had to do with menstruation. I had not started my period quite yet, but was destined to do so in just a few months. After reading that red book, I remember feeling the unfairness of a woman’s Period. It just seemed messy. How do you keep yourself clean? Doesn’t the blood get on your clothes? Does it hurt to have your Period? What if you were swimming when it happened? Wouldn’t the blood get in the water? I was fearful of the unpredictability, the mess, and the cleanup. I wasn’t worried about the pain. I was just worried about the social significance of the bleeding; that was my biggest worry.
No one said a word. I suppose that my older sister had her Period before me, but I don’t remember it. I don’t remember her having tampons or pads or anything.
But I remember the night my Period started. Who could forget? I was sitting on the sofa watching The Twilight Zone with Rodney McDowell. It was scary, like Halloween. It was 10:00 pm on a Saturday night and my Father had gone to the store for something. I felt alone. I was waiting for him to get back home. All my sisters were asleep and my stomach felt a little crampy. I didn’t know that cramps went together with Periods.
When my Dad pulled into our U-shaped driveway, I didn’t get up. I let him open the door and bring me some aspirin. He was attentive and caring, but he didn’t know what was happening, either. I took the medication and went to get ready for bed. When I went to empty my bladder for the last time, that’s when it happened. I noticed the blood. There wasn’t too much blood, but it was there and I knew I had started my first Period. There was no one to talk to, no one to question, no one to help. I guess I could have asked my Father, but the thought did not occur to me. I didn’t think that it was in his realm. I would have been embarrassed and I just frankly would not have known what to say, or how to say it. Awkward. Yes, it would have been awkward.
So I balled up some toilet tissue and stuffed it in my underwear, wondering who and when I was going to tell some one. Or ask some one. I knew that I needed help, but I really didn’t want to ask for it. “I can handle this, “ I thought. It was too late to call Adrienne or MaryAnn or Lorie.
That night, I laid in the bottom bunk bed, staring at the wood planks above me. The mattress heaved in and out of the planks, like the weavings of a straw basket. I turned to the wall, pillow and hand under my head. I remembered the times when we played The Clock Game. My sister on the top bunk would put her whole arm down between the bed and the wall, and make it go Tick Tock like a clock. On the bottom bunk, I would then try to catch it as she furiously made it go faster and faster. We were practically wetting our pants it was so funny. Inevitably, the sisters in the next room would be yelling at us to be quiet, as we frequently played this game when we couldn’t sleep. That just made the whole thing funnier, you know. Of course it did.
I closed my eyes and went to sleep, thinking that times were changing. I was leaving my childhood behind. My period marked a sign of womanhood, maturation, entering a one-way street into the future. Truly, I no idea that my life had entered a new phase.
The next morning was a Saturday, and I could hear the chirping of the birds. As was my habit, I peered out the window to check on the sun. On many days it was cloudy in June, the classic June Gloom of Los Angeles. Other days, the sun was bright and strong, shining such that my arms headed for the second drawer of my crème-colored dresser. Tossing aside socks and underwear, I fished for my bikini top and bottom. Let’s see…yes, they are both there and no one stole them. Being in a big family was frought with borrowed clothes, missing items, and the need to hide things that were of value to me. So I was relieved to find both parts of the bikini.
The bright sun signified that it was time to whip out the baby oil and tin foil. In my mind’s eye, I imagined the next steps to take. Normally, I would position the foil around my face as I laid on a beach chair. This of course intensified the suntan and the risk of skin cancer, but no one really knew about the risk of skin cancer then. The baby oil and tin foil were the habits of the season.
Normally, I would couple the bikini, baby oil, and tin foil with a selection of Diet Shasta. My Dad would purchase a case of soda, ten different flavors. The case was on the floor in the kitchen, next to the avocado green telephone that hung on the wall. I would pour one out into a glass of ice and take all this gear outside with me outside to lay out in the sun.
My favorite place to lay out was in the front yard, because we had a Golden Retriever and a mutt in the backyard. If I laid out in the backyard, they just refused to leave me alone. Licking. I would get licked and licked and it was simply gross. Besides, there were more flies and I didn’t want them sticking to my baby oil. So off to the front yard I prepared to go, seeing in my mind’s eye all the supplies in hand. La-la-la…
Oops. Yes and no. As my hand came out of my dresser drawer now, my image of laying out in front suddenly dashed out of my focus. I looked down at my legs, squatted down with the black bikini strewn across.
I started my Period last night. I started my Period last night, I said!
I didn’t have any one to go to. I wish that one of my friends had a mother that I could talk to, as I figured the conversation was over with my own mother. My shoulders hunched downward in defeat and despair as the dawning came over me. I was alone.
Back then, girls were not really taught to go to college, to get a job, or to think about a career goal. None of my friends wanted to be anything. For sure Adrienne with her blonde, floating hair and immaculate smile was already attracting boys that could drive. Destined to be a model or an actress, everyone considered her to be the most popular girl in school. Her mother was a nurse. She worked nights, but it seemed like she really didn’t work too much, as she was always home. I don’t remember that she was particularly tired or crabby or anything. She seemed like a normal mother but I didn’t know her well enough to ask about my Period.
In fact, I didn’t even tell my girlfriends about it. Somehow, I imagined that it was up to me to figure it out for myself. I was going to have my Period for a long time now, and it wasn’t gong to go away.
I thought about telling MaryAnn or Lorie. MaryAnn had an older sister too, and maybe Carla knew about Periods. Ahhh, but Carla played basketball and volleyball and was super athletic. She would probably think I was being baby-ish if I asked, and then MaryAnn would have to know about it to, by default.
Peer pressure seemed to dictate that girls didn’t talk to other girls about starting their Period. I was 13 years old, in 8th grade, and I was getting ready to enter Catholic High School next year. I though well, if I’m big enough to go to High School, then I’m big enough to figure it out on my own.
I don’t know why I didn’t want my friends to know I started my Period. I just thought that it was supposed to be a secret thing. No one ever talked to me about it. Older sisters were everywhere, and surely they were already on their Periods. Why didn’t they sit us down and tell us about it? You’d think that it would be a chance for them to be the ‘big’ sister and give us advice and tell us what to expect, what to use, etc. There must be so much to know, isn’t that true? Since no one had really talked to me about having a Period before, my conclusion was that I wasn’t supposed to talk about it. Well, I thought, let me think about this one more time before I keep it quiet.
Lorie was the cool-headed friend that was level. Nothing startled her. She could handle ten frightful situations without having a meltdown, but…I couldn’t go to her. I was too embarrassed. How do I say the word, “vagina”? How could I tell her that I had blood coming from my Private Part? Would she think less of me? Would she be jealous? Maybe she already started her Period? No, why would she start her Period and then not tell me? She couldn’t have started it yet. Ahhh, but if she did start her Period and she didn’t tell me, then I’m stuck again! Maybe we’re not supposed to talk about it! Oh no!
I threw down my bikini on the mustard-and black shag wall-to-wall carpeting. It was well worn by now, dog hair scattered here and there. I didn’t care. I was bleeding! What do I do about the blood? Oh my goodness! If I squat, does that make the blood come out worse? What if my Dad sees it on my clothes? What if my sisters see it? Surely they will point at me and laugh if they see blood.
So I thought I should hide it.
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