Here’s the thing about getting older. It happens so gradually, you can convince yourself that maybe…maybe it’s not happening. Sure, other people get old and die, but not me. My grey hair didn’t come in all at once. There were just a few at a time. I could even pluck them out or convince myself that they were highlights. Those laugh lines? There are just a few of them, really, and besides, they augment my smile. But there was one highly visible harbinger of aging that took place in a moment. One clear marker that told me: you, my dear, are on the homestretch.
It’s only now, now that I’ve stopped bleeding, that I fully appreciate how important it was. It started in an instant and, for me, it stopped in an equally sudden instant. And now that my menstrual cycle has ended, I realize what a shaping influence, a mystical ingredient, a sentry it really was.
I started late. At least it felt late to me. All of my friends had started and I felt childish compared to their sudden sophistication. Like they were in an exclusive sisterhood and I wasn’t yet welcome. I remember thinking they had a different look to their faces, a vividness that must have come with the program. And they had curves while my body remained stubbornly skinny and indistinguishable from a boy’s. Knock-kneed, freckled, red-headed and awkward, I was counting on a complete transformation when menstruation began.
The details of the sisterhood were discussed in hushed tones with an impressive dedication to indirect referral. It was like they were speaking in a secret code that I couldn’t translate. I remember my friend, Rosemary, explaining why she couldn’t go swimming with me like this: “I have a friend visiting.” I was confused. “What friend?” “Who?!” “That makes no sense. I’m visiting you.” Her staunch and pious refusal to explain herself, despite my ongoing interrogation, had me completely baffled.
I suppose that’s when I had my first glimmerings of the shame involved here. Apparently, this was all unmentionable. Why else come up with so many code words? “Monthlies,” “the crimson flow,” “on the rag.” There was something dirty about all of this. It was blood after all. Scarlet red. Messy. A death of sorts. And look where it came from! The great unmentionable, the innermost regions of your body.
Turns out the creation of code words for the most natural of feminine functions is universal. People the world over rely on euphemisms for this socially unacceptable topic. Red fruit is featured in the phrases used by Swedes and Germans – “ligonberry” and “strawberry week,” respectively. Brazilians take off on the visiting-friend-theme with the jaunty “I’m with Chico.” In China, the preferred phrase is “its little sister has come.” And the Danes get creativity points for “there are communists in the funhouse.”
My mother was helpful when I finally did start menstruating, but her approach was to take it on as a hygiene problem. Things had to be cleaned up and properly disposed of, tidy-like. There was gear involved – belts, pads, and buckles. There were decisions to be made – regular or super? My mother was so incredibly prepared for this, it occurred to me that she might have been worried about my late start too but, of course, we didn’t talk about that. She showed me the secret stash of powder blue-colored boxes of sanitary napkins in the cabinet, under the bathroom sink. Tampons were not allowed. When I asked why, she became uncomfortable and said something unclear that implied damage and danger. Too embarrassed to ask for clarification, I worked with the ridiculous pads and the incomprehensible belt that never fit properly.
The shame factor was reinforced if you were caught unprepared. I can still feel my adolescent horror over the bright red rose that bloomed on the back of a white, white skirt in 9th grade. From then on, I realized you had to carry an emergency pack with you, like a survivalist expecting the end-of-days at any moment.
My father added embarrassment to the mix when he learned of my initiation and announced, in front of his new wife, with whom I was still staking out territory, “So, I understand my little girl is a woman now.” Good god. This meant that my mother had talked to him about this intensely secret thing. They’d had a conversation. And then my father had told his wife. About me, about this, about the pads and belts. Burning with embarrassment, I wanted to crawl into a hole.
Which, historically, did happen. I remember when I read the book, The Red Tent, I first understood how tribal this whole thing is; a cosmic, lunar miracle happening every month to women the world over. A common physiological bond we all share. I learned about the way women, living or working in close proximity to each other, align their cycles and establish a rhythm together.
Later in my life, it became the sign of relief. The referee that gave you the all-clear. I can remember dashing to the bathroom to “check” during months that I feared an unplanned pregnancy and the wash of relief with that first spot of crimson or that dull ache deep in my center. The cramps were even welcome. They were the monthly reminder that I was ok — for now. Cramps and blood; the tent poles of my femininity, reminding me that I had the potential to bear a child. Looking back, it feels like years living in a risk zone, accompanied by the deepest fear of unimaginable consequences.
After I had children, I took to seeing my monthly period as a small serenity holiday. There were a few days, mandated each month, that I allowed myself to turn inward, to think about myself. To indulge myself with a nap or a hot bath. To light a candle. To feel my body’s thrum.
It even seems right that menstruation has stopped now. That particular phase of my life has ended. I remember feeling my body getting ready to give up this routine. Again, other friends were ahead of me. They’d already stopped and joined a different sisterhood. Now they talked about hot flashes and night sweats, laughed convivially over their mood swings. I felt ready to retire the tattered storage basket that sat on the toilet tank and stop thinking about it. It felt as if my body knew that, at this age, I have other priorities and I could no longer spare time for reproduction and childcare. There were other rhythms and patterns for me to establish.
But I do miss it, now and then. Maybe Rosemary was right after all. My menstrual cycle was like a good friend. A friend who mysteriously came for a monthly visit, for over 30 years, and then, just as mysteriously, stopped coming. Like that.