A Period Piece

Remembering the early days of 'that time of the month'

At the school bus stop, in fourth grade, Julie Hoff asks me, "Do you know what menstruation is?" I want badly to impress her because she's older by two years and she's pretty, but I also don't want to say anything dumb, so I just shake my head.

Later that same year, Mom summons me into the bathroom and gives me "the talk." I'm horrified! I call her a dirty, filthy pig and storm out of the bathroom screaming, "That is never going to happen to me." But, in my head, I can't wait to go to the bus stop the next day so I can sidle up to Julie and whisper, "I know what menstruation is now." I want to be part of the sisterhood—without the mess.

Obviously, my mother, a teacher, is trying to forewarn me so I'm not shocked to see blood in my underwear someday. One of her fourth grade students started her period in the classroom that very week, without any understanding of what was happening. Mom had the entire class put their heads down on their desks as she slipped the girl out of the room and helped her clean up while explaining the biology to her. The girl was terrified she was dying.

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In sixth grade, the girls in Mrs. Ealer's class are shown "the movie" by the school nurse. I'm puzzled to hear the actress in the movie say that "girls should act normally" when they have their menses and "wear ribbons" in their hair. In a panic, I think, "If I wear ribbons, everyone will know what's happening under my clothes."

That summer, I'm living in Sea Isle City in Cape May and I can't sleep at night, and don't feel well. I end up in Mercy Hospital where the Sisters still wear long white habits and head veils. Nothing is explained to me, but the doctors take X-rays while I'm incarcerated there. What I remember is the odor of the calf's liver from my dinner tray that causes me to projectile vomit all over the kindly nun with rosary beads the size of malted milk balls hanging from her waistband.

When I'm discharged, no one ever tells me about my diagnosis. Within a few weeks, I get my first period. Julie Hoff is not happy. Not only do I get a bra before she does, but now I'm "a young woman" before she is, too. Somehow having this pain and mess translates to street cred for me, even though it means not going swimming for a week.

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In seventh grade, I miss a day of school every month because of severe cramps. Motrin is nonexistent and aspirin does nothing. Periods become even more of a problem when I'm obliged to visit my dad in his apartment for his custody weekends. One weekend in particular, I get my period and have no supplies with me. In the tiny bathroom of his studio apartment, I madly stuff wads of toilet paper into my underwear and curse the bane of womanhood. He knows something is wrong because I'm in the bathroom every 20 minutes.

From the payphone at the nearby corner store, I confide to my mother what has happened. She suggests that I tell my father, but that's a humiliation I can't bear to face. In the dark ages before bra burners, birth control pill liberation of female sexuality and television commercials for feminine products, talking to my father or any other male about female matters is the equivalent of running naked in the street.

To make matters worse, the following summer I get my period while vacationing with Dad and my brother where we're expected to be on the beach from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, so he can get a tan. Luckily, the wife of one of his friends tells me how to insert a tampon without jeopardizing my virginity. However, I inadvertently leave the cardboard wrapper in the pocket of his Cornell beach jacket after carefully not disposing it in the trashcan for fear he'll find it. To his credit, he says nothing, thank God.

The next year, I discover the string from my tampon floating in the bathtub and suffer a panic attack thinking I'll never be able to extract the damn plug.

Then I grow up, have kids and revel in those nine-month reprieves and yearlong stretches without periods while nursing. The last stop (literally and figuratively) on my period bus is menopause, which is still a few years away, but I think it'll be a little sad and a little wonderful.