In "Red" the author remembers her first period and the mixed reactions it stirred in herself and her family. Then the author moves forward in time, to when she is a grown woman, with a daughter of her own. She vows she will make this transition different for her daughter, and she concludes, "I want her to feel honored when she gets her first period."
Excerpt from Moon Days - Creative Writings About Menstruation Pages 44-48
There's a full moon tonight. Exactly twenty-eight years ago I got my first period. I was eleven years old.
It was May Day. Around the world, workers were waving red flags. Little did I know that something red was about to wash my childhood away.
After school I tried to slip onto the bus without attracting the attention of Nate Cohen. Nate was a short, intense neighborhood boy who was as smug about his standing as the top math student at our school as he was about his detailed knowledge of the facts of life. Despite my best efforts to hide behind my writing folder, our eyes met. His eyes sparkled as I wrapped my arms around my stomach. After checking to see that the younger children on the bus were within earshot, he began cracking jokes about the breasts I had sprouted that spring.
It was as if he was accusing me of choosing to develop earlier than my peers. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I loved being a child. I would have much rather continued playing with my teddy bears than found myself thrown forward into the world of bras, acne-medication, ad girlfriends dumping girlfriends over boyfriends.
I tried to think of a snappy comeback, but it flopped. Our sparring escalated into an argument. The young passengers around us stared at us with a mixture of fear and admiration. The older boys snickered. Finally I realized I'd never outtalk this bully, so I flopped into my seat and fixed my gaze out the window. I tried to imagine that I was flying up and away from the dank smell of the school bus. Before my imagination could take me higher than the telephone wires, my bus stop appeared. I stepped out feeling filthy and frustrated.
I walked home and threw my backpack on the floor of my room next to a pile of dirty clothes. To the untrained eye, my room was a mess. I, however, knew where everything was. There was a pile of recycled materials for collages. Next to that were my sketches and notes. After peeling off my school clothes and throwing them in the dirty clothes pile, I noticed a bright red spot on my underpants.
What a shock. It had happened. Ahead of schedule like my precocious breasts.
Thinking my mother would never believe me without physical evidence, I rushed up to the kitchen.
"Look, Mom," I announced, presenting her with the underpants.
"Well, what a surprise. Your sister hasn't even gotten her period yet."
Boy, will she be mad, I fretted, genuinely worried. Joe is two and a half years older than me and this was the first time I had ever accomplished something before she had; at least getting my period felt like an accomplishment.
My mother took me to her bathroom, closed the door, and began going through the mechanics of how to attach a sanitary napkin to its support belt. These were back in the days before maxi pads.
"I was going to get you girls your own supply of sanitary napkins so you'd have them when the time came, but you beat me to it."
What? So we'd just get our periods and use this stuff without telling you? Wouldn't you want to know the moment we became women?
And that's how it was at my house: no fanfare. In fact, after that brief discussion, it was rarely mentioned unless I needed some more supplies from the grocery store. My sister was not storming around the house slamming doors, so apparently my mom didn't give her the news. My father must have known, but you never would have guessed it by looking at his face at dinner. It was just a secret between my mother and me, an embarrassing secret.
My mother confessed that I was entering a "difficult age." The carefree days of childhood were over. My parents were to become more and more uncomfortable with me as I awakened to my own sexuality.
When my mother went back to the kitchen to continue making dinner, I sat alone on my bed. I was stunned by the realization that I could now reproduce. Despite the fact that I had no desire to rush on out and lose my virginity, I was nonetheless capable of having a baby. I could be the first eleven-year-old on my block to get "knocked up," as Nate referred to the miracle of pregnancy.
The next day on the bus I smirked at Nate Cohen. Wouldn't he love to call me a whole new set of names if he knew my secret? Was he taken aback by the new look of confidence in my eyes? He paused to take a breath, studied me carefully-as if trying to figure out why I was looking at him fearlessly-then launched into a whole stand-up routine about the "acne pimple" which had blossomed on my nose.
As I pretended to study the scenery out of the window of the bus, I stared at my own reflection. Nate was right about one thing. The pimple was bright red. If my family was not going to tell the whole world that I had become a woman, my giant pimple would be the megaphone blasting,
"Look at me! My hormones are raging! I'm not a kid anymore!"
Years later I heard about all kinds of new "traditions" for celebrating a young woman's first period. One friend took her daughter out and let her buy a special outfit. Another had each of her three sons present their sister with a flower. Still another invited all their women friends over for a big ceremony with dancing, red face paint, and a blazing fire. I would have settled for a pat on the back, rather than the awkward silence which greeted my passage into womanhood, but that was not my family's way.
My mother is in her seventies now. Recently I told her about Moon Days and asked her to share what she what remembered about the arrival of my first period. "Nothing. Why are you so interested in this topic?" was her initial dismissal.
After I shared my own memories of the event she said, "No. You couldn't have gotten yours before Joe. Joe is older than you are."
I was about to bring this intimate mother/daughter exchange to a close when her tone changed. She began sharing her own memories. My mother grew up on a farm during the Depression. She described her own mother as a "formal" woman whose sphere was the house. Grandmother did not go out to the barns or the fields where the men worked. When my mother approached puberty, Grandmother did not tell her anything about how babies are made or what it means when you find blood in your underpants. Mother's older sisters were expected to pass on that information to her. Otherwise, it was simply not discussed.
Suddenly I saw how three generations of the women in our family have made progress in their ability to be open about periods and sex. My grandmother felt there was no place for polite discussion of these topics. My mother, a nurse, gave me as many biological explanations as I was willing to hear, "The man puts his penis in the woman's vagina." (You are kidding, right?") She just left out the startling fact that there might be some pleasure involved. Yet she was far more "modern" than her own mother. And I hope to be even more comfortable with the topic when my daughter expresses an interest.
Even though my daughter is only two, I began thinking about how to talk with her about periods and sex before she was born. I've rehearsed lines like this: "There are boys who will tell you lies to get you to have sex with them Even if one says, 'I love you,' you do not owe him a thing. Many want to have sex for their own pleasure whether you have a good time or not. If a boy truly cares about you, he will wait until you feel ready." I will also have to tell her about dangers which were unheard of when I first was young: herpes and AIDS. By talking about bodies and sexuality early on, I hope to persuade her that becoming a woman is a blessing, not a curse.
Most of all, I want her to feel honored when she gets her first period. I hope that together we can create a simple family ritual to celebrate the beginning of her "Moon Days" without embarrassing her. Instead of greeting her womanhood with silence, I will give her red roses.
Excerpt from Moon Days - Creative Writings About Menstruation
This article is based on material found in MOON DAYS
Wise Woman books are available at www.herbalmedicinehealing.com
Paperback edited by Cassie Preemo Steele. 176 pp. Moon Days is a great collection of women's writings on menstruation.
Twenty-six writers explore the "silent" parts of women's lives; reawakening menstruation memories of embarrassment and shame and transforming them to wonder, excitement, and laughter.
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