Sex education didn’t exist in the ‘50s. I’m guessing there may have been a few enlightened parents who told their children about “the birds and the bees” as it was called back then, but I never met any of them or their children. All the kids in my neighborhood were equally ignorant, so we banded together, pooling our scant and misguided knowledge, working diligently to assemble the illusive pieces of the sexual puzzle.
The brave among us asked our mothers, but they weren’t talking. We’d heard the F word bandied about like a volleyball on the school playground and knew it had something to do with sex. It was usually accompanied by one of the popular hand gestures making the rounds at the time. There was the middle finger, thrust skyward, that meant “F you” and the less popular display of the index finger combined with the little finger. This combo was known as “mother-F-er”. Nobody knew what that meant, but were all pretty sure it was something none of our mothers would enjoy.
My friend Paula, who lived in another neighborhood and was getting her information from a different think tank, had also heard it at school. After running it past her peer group to no avail, she made the ill-fated decision to ask her mother what it meant. Clearly not the coolest of moves. Her mother grabbed her by the shirt collar, shoved her up against the wall, got right in her face and growled, “There’s no such word,” leaving Paula to wonder why her mother had gotten so upset about a word that didn’t exist.
When the mystery of the F word was finally unraveled, we wished we’d never asked! That couldn’t be right, could it? Who in their right mind would ever willingly do such a thing? I couldn't even imagine doing it at gunpoint. Then it hit me - if that’s where babies came from, my own parents had done it! I told myself that it was only twice - just to have me and my brother. I silently forgave them and tried to move on, but I was off my food for days.
We had to name our own genitalia, as no one had ever heard of a penis or a vagina. Boys had wieners or talleywackers. and most girls referred ominously to their nether regions as “down there”. Then there was the more generic term - thing - which could be used for either male or female parts by those for whom words like wiener, talleywacker, and “down there” didn’t roll easily off the tongue.
When I was 11, my body became a source of constant embarrassment when it betrayed me by growing tiny breasts. I comforted myself in the knowledge that my they were small and could be easily hidden. Then came the first traces of pubic hair which I promptly yanked out. Dear God, no! Anything but that! I flashed back to the first time I saw my mother naked, quite by accident. I had been about 5 at the time. I had yet to recover from that. and now it was happening to me!
One day I went to the bathroom and got the shock of my young life. There, lurking in the crotch of my white cotton panties, was a small, dark red stain. Having used the word “period” only at the end of a sentence, I was lacking a clue here. No one had ever bothered to explain the female reproductive system to me, so I sure as hell didn’t see this coming.
Pretending it never happened seemed to be the logical course of action. I was a tomboy, a tree-climber. Maybe I had just hurt myself “down there”. There was no need to make a big deal out of it... yet. I rinsed out my panties when I got home so Mama wouldn’t see it, but it came back, so I stuffed my panties with toilet paper. I decided not to tell Mama about this turn of events. My parents were great, and I couldn’t bear to hurt them with the horrible news that was so obvious to me. I had cancer and was going to die.
The bleeding stopped after a few days, but I continued stuffing my panties. I had no idea if or when it would start again and I wanted to be prepared. About a month later, as the initial trauma was finally beginning to fade, I woke up one Sunday morning and let out a blood curdling scream. Remember that scene in The Godfather where they cut off the horse’s head and put it in that guy’s bed? You get the picture.
Mama and Daddy both came running. Daddy took one look, turned gray, and quickly left the room, leaving Mama with the dirty work of explaining what was going down to their pubescently ignorant daughter. I struggled to grasp what she was saying and still avoid puking on her shoes. What was that? NORMAL... Really? EVERY MONTH??? For how long? 'Til I'm too old to care! Holy shit, a life sentence with no time off for good behavior? Sweet Jesus, you’ve got to be kidding! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My cancer diagnosis seemed preferable at the moment.
Then she whipped out the medieval paraphernalia that accompanied this feminine “curse”. There was a thick pad that looked like a roll of tube socks and a hideous elastic belt with a v-shaped metal hook that lodged squarely in your ass crack to hold the sock pad in place. Apparently, I was somehow supposed to saddle up and ride this thing for a whole week... every month... for the rest of the foreseeable future. I’d always thought God had made a colossal mistake in rendering me a girl. Now I was absolutely sure of it.
She went on to explain the rules of “menstruation”. Even the name was disgusting. According to Mama, I was allegedly in some sort of weakened state during the days of my “menstrual cycle” and should not wash my hair or bathe as frequently as I normally did. What the hell? If ever there were a time for bathing, this was it! I went over her head to Daddy and prevailed. I sure as hell didn’t need buzzards following me to school.
I finally made peace with my body and its ever-changing terrain around the same time I discovered boys. What a great distraction! I actually began to enjoy being female. Maybe God knew what he was doing after all.