‘LOOK AT ALL THOSE KOTIES!’ my brother’s voice boomed from the upstairs bathroom.
Wild scrambling noises came next, as his pack of teenage cronies all tried to shove their way into the room for a look.
‘Wow, I’ve never seen so many!’
‘What are they for?’
‘You moron, what do you mean what are they for?’
Every word echoed through the house — upstairs and down — unmistakably clear.
The adults partying in our living room froze. For the past half hour they’d been laughing and bantering, sipping cocktails, looking forward to the tasty cookout hosted by my parents. I’d been mingling with the crowd to make sure everyone had drinks and snacks in hand. My brother and his friends were tearing up the second floor, running around like banshees from room to room. Our home was a happy, chaotic din until one random moment, orchestrated by the puckish gods of the universe, killed the adult chatter.
‘LOOK AT ALL THOSE KOTIES!’
The awkward moment had been well timed. And it refused to end there. My mother’s voice bellowed a warning up to my brother: ‘You boys get out of that bathroom and leave those alone. Those are Krissie’s!’
I wish I could say that the world went dark and I slipped away, but it didn’t and I didn’t. I wish I could tell you that someone rescued me, but that didn’t happen either. My face burned with embarrassment as all eyes turned in my direction. The herd of boys galloped down the stairs and, seeing me, laughed.
The Kotie story spread quickly through the neighborhood among my friends and my brothers’ friends but, luckily, school was on summer break and so the gossip was old news by the time we started back.
At twelve years, four months, eight days, and ten hours—give or take a few minutes, I ‘became a woman.’ That’s the way Mom put it when she told Dad the news.
I had just finished setting the table for dinner when Mom pulled me by the arm and positioned me between herself and Dad by the window. I waited uncomfortably for someone to speak. In our boisterous house, quiet usually signalled trouble.
‘Krissie became a woman today.’ Mom’s words passed over my head to Dad, who turned to me and smiled.
Pride mixed with mortification filled me. Oh Dad, don’t look at me. What must you be thinking? Do you understand what Mom is saying?’
‘One daughter in diapers (my toddler sister, flat on her stomach coloring the sidewalk outside) and one, almost an adult,’ she continued.
‘Congratulations,’ Dad said with a big hug.
This was the day I’d been anticipating for over two years, ever since Mom told me the facts of life and I watched the video of menstruation required of all fourth grade girls. My female classmates and I studied that film, our eyes glued to the wobbly projector screen, amazed at the miracle preparing to burst forth from our young bodies. It was the necessary key that allowed us to become mothers, and it was all we talked about, asked about, dreamed about.
Betty Goralsky (name changed) was the first in our class to get her period. February 11, 1967. The news spread quickly among us. We bombarded Betty with questions at recess and envied her for crossing the threshold before we did: ‘What’s it like?’ ‘Does it hurt?’ ‘Is it gross?’ She answered all our questions in detail, providing much better information than that fourth grade film. She was our hero.
The rest of us followed at our own pace. For me, that was April 27th, two-and-a-half months later. I felt the stirrings and churnings in my gut the night before and when I awoke the next morning, crimson-stained sheets greeted me.
Cynthia Stark didn’t hit the milestone until she was almost seventeen. She was pretty desperate by that time. We tried our best to console by telling her that a period really wasn’t worth all the psychological and emotional hype. But Cynthia didn’t believe us.
One day, early on in my new womanly season, I lay on the couch, clutching a heating pad to my belly and moaned: ‘How much longer will I have to go through this?’
‘Well, in our family, ‘ Mom said, ‘menopause comes at about fifty-six.’
‘FIFTY-SIX,’ I calculated. ‘That’s forty-four years from now – pretty much my whole life!’
Mom thought about this before answering, ‘Yep. That’d be about right.’
How could she be so calm and unconcerned? Surely Mom had never experienced the trauma my body went through every two weeks. Menstruation is a complicated process that involves ovulation, another monthly infliction of pain and discomfort. You’d at least hope the two could coordinate their schedules and happen simultaneously. But no. Every two weeks, one of them pops in to say ‘hello’. And it’s never a quick ‘hello’. The dull ache of ovulation sticks around a few days, makes itself comfortable (and you uncomfortable), then decides to take its leave just in time for the main character to appear. At twelve years old, forty-four years of having only a handful of good days each month seemed both implausible and impossible.
‘You’ll get used it to it,’ Mom offered in an attempt at sympathy. ‘Every woman gets her monthly visitor.’
I was sure I would never get used to it. And who invented the euphemism ‘monthly visitor’? A visitor is someone I look forward to spending time with, doing fun things with — like shopping or swimming. My period was an unwelcome intruder most of the time, making me physically ill and hurting, sucking up all my energy, tightening my clothes, and actually preventing me from shopping or swimming.
And then there’s the other code word: ‘friend.’
‘Sorry, I can’t go camping with you next Saturday. I’m expecting my friend (wink, wink).’
Being young and naïve in the workings of biology, I obediently listened to my mother gush about the wonder of my blossoming body. I speculated often what, exactly, she might be talking about, feeling that I had somehow missed some great female change she had experienced at my age.
Tampons became popular in the U.S. in the 1970s. Until then, we bore the bulk of sanitary pads in our underwear, the long tapered ends of said pads clipped to a front and back garter on a belt worn around our waist. Some parents (my mother), were convinced that the odor of blood would draw older boys to their daughters, like sharks to chum-infested waters. She bought a special talcum powder that I had to shake on each clean pad before I wore it — sometimes six or seven pads in one day. For seven or more days. I don’t know if the powder actually prevented a blood scent or not, but the yeast infection it gave me had an even more powerful odor and required me to be on antibiotics for a long time.
Doctors (probably male) will tell you that the average blood flow during one month’s period is six-to-eight teaspoons. No girl believes this. Maybe six-to-eight teaspoons per hour on the first day. Even bulky pads can’t keep up with that. Ask women how many pairs of their underwear Mother Nature ruins on a monthly basis. Teaspoons? Ha! A pint – easily. On really bad days, I’ll bet I turned out a quart of fluid.
Kotex had the monopoly on pads at that time, but any brand of sanitary napkin was affectionately called ‘Kotie.’ Mom bought me the largest box of forty-eight. The big purple box filled an entire shelf in the bathroom closet I shared with all my siblings. ‘LOOK AT ALL THOSE KOTIES!’ rang in my ears for a long time and eventually embedded itself in my childhood memories.
The years passed and Mom was partially correct. While I never got used to the discomfort of my monthly ovulation and period, I eventually came to accept them as a fact of life. And it helped to hear other girls gripe about their own pains, stained underwear, mood swings, and ruined plans. A sisterhood can make anything tolerable.
I even came to appreciate my monthly ‘friend’ on occasion. I can remember feeling happiness and relief at the first twinge of gut pain and the faint stain of red early in my marriage when finances were tight and hubby and I feared that our birth control had failed. And later, when infertility plagued us, I prayed for the next ovulation cycle. Waited for it, searched for signs of it, because it meant hope, another chance at pregnancy and creating a little life that we so desperately wanted.
Now, fifty-two years later, my siblings and I celebrate the coming of age of our daughters and granddaughters. As a group, we good aunties comfort them —huddling together around an aching girl on a couch, a heating pad pressed to her belly.
‘How long do I have to go through this?’ her moaning question hovers over us.
‘Just a few days. Maybe a week,’ we good aunties reply. And we exchange secret smiles among us. Oh honey. You haven’t experienced labor or childbirth yet. This pain is nothing!
The plaintive cries from the couch continue, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’
And the good aunties can’t resist: ‘Only another forty years to go.’
‘Forty years! That’s my whole life!’
‘Pretty near, yeah. But it’ll go faster than you realize.’
That little sister lying on the sidewalk making chalk drawings all those years ago? She’ll hit menopause in the next year or two. She’s counting down with great enthusiasm the days till the final ‘goodbye’ to her monthly visitor — much like the excitement of waiting to meet the visitor for the first time. The sisterhood will celebrate this milestone too – the end of a big chunk of life, but a fresh start to many years in the next season of womanhood.
Kristine Zimmer Orkin comes from a lineage of language lovers – poets and essayists, as well as jokers, punsters, wanna-be comedians, and class clowns. Wit is her family’s mainstay, be it physical humor, wordplay, or double entendre. Kristine writes primarily nonfiction in the form of short stories, inspirational essays, and memoir. Her tagline reads “Finding blessings in life’s burdens.” Several of Kristine’s works are published in multiple anthologies and on guest blogs. Her current work – a book dealing with widowhood at a young age – is nearing completion. Her children carry on the legacy. The elder son writes inspirational pieces, like Mom. The younger son’s childhood dream was to be another Jim Carrey slapstick comic. Today, he is a successful entrepreneur (and one very funny guy).
Illustration by Philippa Hall