‘I’ll ring Florence!’ my mother said, in a panic. I knew something terrible was about to happen, already happening or inevitable, because my Aunt Florence was always summoned on such occasions.
It was a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon and I had had the privilege of wheeling baby Billy Ritter around the block in his buggy. That was the thrill of my short twelve-year-old lifetime. Baby dolls had been my passion since early memory and on this summer’s day I had been allowed to take a neighbour’s baby for a stroll. My parents sat on the front porch supervising my early mothering talents. Baby Billy was the grandchild of the Ritters, who owned a bakery and lived nearby on Lake Michigan, in Wisconsin. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas they would roast our turkey dinner, collecting it in the car. We salivated on the way home, as the juicy aroma penetrated the heavy foil wrapping. The journey was a sweet agony joyfully endured.
‘You’d better come quickly,’ I heard my mother say. ‘It’s Mary!’ Florence was an integral part of our family, an extension who formed me as much as either parent. She taught first grade and no child left her classroom without, at the very least, basic reading skills. Her love for us became even more essential when, five summers later, she moved in to care for us when my mother died.
Florence’s apartment was near the church, where my parents had been married, where I received Baptism and Holy Communion. It was only a five-minute drive away, and soon I heard Pepe, the Hispanic taximan, deliver Florence to our doorstep. He personified the stereotype of the day—a compliant, grateful, cheerful, wiry man eager to please his fares. As Florence didn’t drive, she was often his passenger and they shared a mutual respect.
Little Billy Ritter had been returned home, and while I was mulling over these confusing events, Florence arrived with her customary assortment of bags. First there was her handbag, surely a misnomer, since it closely resembled the size of a lap, rather than a hand. Then there was her bag with comfortable shoes. She suffered with bad feet and wore ‘sensible’ shoes whenever possible. Finally, there was her tote bag, which held any number of things, depending on the day that was in it.
Florence opened bag number three and produced the first sanitary pad I had ever seen. There was no public advertising for such products then, and I was as shocked by the hygiene apparatus as I was by the explanation she gave me about the beginning of my menses. Her approach was practical, sensible, and reassuring. My mother’s nerves had settled, and although I was exhausted by the afternoon’s events, I can claim no deep trauma.
With the exception of my mother’s emergency call to Florence, that event is like millions of others experienced by little women all over the world. It is one story at least, besides the horrors of childbirth, that my generation are quick to share. The common feature for those of us born in the first half of the twentieth century is that none of us had any prior notice that this lunar cycle would be part of most of our lives onward.
As a generation, we were prepared for our daughters, ready to tell them about their impending womanhood, fertility, entry to adulthood and all the other palaver associated with ownership of our bodies. The manufacturers of feminine hygiene products now provide schools with literature and do a lot for women like my mother, who were too bashful to reveal these inevitable facts.
When I purchase such supplies in the Nineties, I am either bemused or bewildered by the brand-names for everywoman. How to decide what is most appropriate to my personal needs? I ponder over Always—long plus, normal plus, normal and ultra night. Now Always sounds so permanent that I find it off-putting to agree. Then there’s Stayfree—super maxi plus, normal maxi and normal maxi plus. Everyone knows there is nothing remotely resembling a ‘stayfree’ state of mind during the menstrual cycle. Even men know this. Vespré Normal has a certain ethereal ring to it, but am I always normal? Certain offspring would surely quibble with this since, although I am a reluctant agnostic, I believe in angels. So what? Alldays—small, light and large—sounds fairly innocuous, but Bodyform—invisible, ultra normal—suggests I could ‘become’ ultra normal and invisible all at the one time! Now that’s something to think about.
More often than not, I revert to what Aunt Florence produced from her tote bag that distant summer’s afternoon—Kotex. They tell me I can have super, maxi, normal or ultra normal. Spoiled for choice, I say!
As if this weren’t enough for one woman’s lifetime, like many Frontline readers I have to provide the same hygiene routine for my daughter. But here the similarity ends. When Mary Kate asks ‘why?’—and she still does—I reply, ‘I don’t know’. I’m not really being evasive, because for her there is no answer. For me, it led to motherhood; for her it will not, nor should it. I know she is often annoyed by this monthly setback, which takes a lot out of her over a ten-day span. The only answer she has ever found comforting is that it happens to all women—and you know how misery loves company. When I offer that answer, she replies with an all-encompassing ‘Ohhhh…’. I can hear her resignation and acceptance, but like me I think she feels it is an injustice of nature and evolution gone messily wrong. I cannot help but conclude that, regardless of what feminists may say, if there is a God, of whatever sort, it is definitely not a woman.
No woman would have ever conceived of such an outrageously inconvenient, hormonally unbalanced, often painful, unwieldy, worrisome and mathematically trussed physiological factor to provide for procreation of the human race.
No benign, merciful, loving feminine deity would have designed such a biological bind to be endured monthly for forty or more years of the female lifespan, only to be ended in middle age by the menopause. If I can’t explain her menses to Mary Kate, how the heck am I going to explain hot flushes, night sweats, haemorrhage, and other indignities? All for the noble role of procreation? Hardly! I couldn’t tell her that God is a misogynist, a very appealing theory, but unfair to her personal beliefs.
I guess the only answer I’ll have, if I’m still around then, is ‘It happens to all women’, and in a voice full of stoic resignation she will say, ‘Ohhhh…’.