Unlike a lot of girls my age, I was eager to get my period and thrilled when it came. I loved knowing that I was officially a woman and could one day have babies. The first day of my first period, the family was going out to dinner (certainly not to celebrate my period; only my mother knew it had happened and she seemed deeply embarrassed by the whole situation). I kept leaving the table to go to the Ladies Room, just to look in the mirror at my face to see if I could see the change from girl to woman. This eager excitement on my part still surprises me to this day, as I was hardly surrounded by any such attitude of welcome. My siblings have told me over the years that they did not hear “the facts of life” from our parents; apparently my father tried once to tell my brother, but never quite got to the point. I told my sister Susan the facts of life after my mother told me; I was eleven and so Susan was sixteen. As someone who read her diaries, I can verify that she was in high school worrying that French kissing might make her pregnant.
By the time I was heading into adolescence, my mother had apparently decided that she needed to be more upfront and modern about sex, which meant that she took me to a film sponsored by my Catholic grade school. The sixth grade girls went to one auditorium and the sixth grade boys went to the other auditorium. I don’t know if we were shown the same filmstrip, but I doubt it because ours involved a lot of information about menstruation, which would never have been deemed suitable or useful for the boys. My mother and I sat with the other girls and their mother and watched this film. I have only dim memories of the film, but two things stayed with me: first, it began in the Garden of Eden and then Adam and Eve were kicked out. I remember seeing them standing outside the beautiful golden gates of paradise. Second, the narrator intoned, over pictures of smiling, happy young women, the information that “something was going to happen to me ,” soon, and as a result of this thing that was going to happen, I would sometimes feel lethargic and unhappy and not want to go bowling with the gang. But I should go bowling; it was important that I go bowling, regardless of how I felt.
On the way home that night, my mother asked me if I understood the film. “Yes,” I replied honestly. I thought I did understand. Did I have any questions, my mother asked. I could tell that she was very hopeful that I had no questions for her, and so I didn’t ask the one question I had: I had only been bowling once in my life, and I hated it. Why, when a mysterious event occurred in the near future, was it important that I continue to bowl? I didn’t ask it, though, and my mother heaved a sigh of relief.
A few months later, I read an article in the newspaper about a sexual assault. I didn’t know what the phrase “sexual assault” meant, so I asked my mother. She said it was an assault having to do with sex. Well, that wasn’t helpful, so I asked her what “sex” was. My brother Johnnie was in the room during this conversation, and I remember his chuckling gleefully. That was my clue that something was up here; there was a vibe that there was something I wasn’t being told. My mother told me that “sex” meant the female sex was a girl and the male sex was a boy. Johnnie’s chuckling continued, and he said to my mother, “Good one.” Now I was really hot on the scent. My mother decided it was time to start making dinner, so she left for the kitchen and began assembling grilled cheese sandwiches. I can still remember staring at the cutting board watching her lay cheese on bread, topping some with tomato and some with green pepper and onion. I pushed and pushed for whatever information I wasn’t getting, and finally my mother said, “Ok! The penis is inserted into the vagina!” She said this while staring resolutely at the sandwiches. I felt as if dawn was breaking over my consciousness; it was one of the few moments in my life when I felt literally enlightened. “That’s why husbands and wives sleep in the same bed!” I exclaimed. My mother agreed that yes, that was so, but even then I could see that she thought it an odd reaction. She also was confused as to why I didn’t know this, since she had taken me to the film at school and had even asked if I had any questions.
Not too long after that conversation, my period arrived. I was so happy. I told my mother and showed her the tiny red stain in my underpants. Unbeknownst to me, she had readied herself for this day. She brought me into her bedroom, opened her chest of drawers, and pulled out a box. In the box were padded things, which she then pinned to a belt she also took out of the box. This was a “sanitary napkin.” I had never seen anything like it. She showed me how to put the belt on, how to pin the pad to the belt, how to pull my underpants up and over this bulky new situation in my swimsuit area. While I was thrilled to be getting my period, I found all of these mechanics distasteful and embarrassing. My mother showed me how to wrap a used pad in lots of toilet paper and dispose of it in the wastebasket. I was just eager to have this moment end. I didn’t understand how I was expected to live my normal life and still deal with this belt and pin and pad and toilet paper set of chores. I found out that, in fact, there were now going to be days when I would not be able to go swimming or take a bath, that I would have stomach cramps (since at the time I was suffering from an undiagnosed dermoid cyst that periodically sent me into spasms of agony, these cramps were never a big deal for me) and that I didn’t have to go to gym class while I had my period. That last bit of information was a gold mine; I despised gym class for good reason and any excuse to avoid it was deeply welcome. Since our teacher was a young male, he never wanted to probe too deeply into questions about our “time of the month,” so this menstruation card was like a Get Out of Jail Free card in Monopoly. I used this excuse so often, though, that even our shy male gym teacher eventually burst out one day in front of the entire class, “Maloney! You’ve had your period three times already this month!