My story must begin with the fact that I was raised Catholic. Or that my mother spent the first ten years of her life growing up in the shadow of a convent. Or that her older sister, her closest sister (there were two others, plus two brothers) volunteered at said convent. Just for fun.
For my mother was, in a way, raised by her older sister, who never married. It was my aunt who taught my mother to make a bed so neatly that maids at a Ritz-Carlton would have been envious. Because of course, it was the nuns who had taught my aunt, and my aunt who felt compelled to teach my mother. This despite the fact that my grandma was still alive and well, right up until just before my own story begins. But Grandma was a widow, and therefore in our family, somewhat powerless. Plus, Grandma was born in 1903. She had old-fashioned ideas about girls and women, which she passed on to her daughters while she still had some hold over them. And, through no fault of her own, my poor grandma was raised by her grandma, who must’ve been born in the mid to late 1800s by my calculations… You can see where this is going. Therefore, as the child of Italian immigrants, I was raised Catholic, and sheltered. Although the sheltered part probably had as much to do with my mother’s own upbringing, and the fact that my parents were immigrants, as it does with being Catholic.
I was in grade five, so it was the early 1980s. A long way from grandma, and great-great grandma’s days. And everyone was reading Judy Blume. Because it was the 80s, and because our teacher thought it was a good idea for kids to read her books. I think it must have been Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Classic young adult book. I brought it home from the school library, and made the mistake of leaving it on my desk in my room. You might think that, because the book was in my room, and because it was on my desk, the book was safe, in a sacred space. Of course, being Catholic, and my mother’s daughter, nothing was really sacred except the confessional box at church, and that was not a place I was interested in venturing into.
I had left the book on my desk, not thinking much about it, or the fact that my mother might see it there. But she did. Because my mother saw everything. She read the book’s back cover. And the back cover spoke about Margaret’s challenges, about how she got her first period. That was enough to trigger my mother’s curiosity. So she asked me about it. I said yes, I was reading the book. I told her the teacher had read another book to us by the same author, and I’d found this one in the school library. No, no, that wasn’t what my mother was concerned about. She said the book talked about periods. Yes, yes, I replied. Margaret goes to public school. They have different periods there, I told her, where they switch classes and teachers. In public school, kids move around. Not like at my Catholic school, where, even in grade five, we were with the same teacher all day. Except for French. Then we got someone else for a little while. But otherwise, we were stuck with the same dumb teacher all day long. No, no, no, my mother told me, that is not what the book meant by periods. I was confused. So much of the book dealt with school. Why was my mother acting so strange? Why was she suddenly so interested in a book I was reading? Didn’t she know I read books all the time? Hadn’t my parents bought me a poetry anthology for Christmas as if it was an unholy book that no one wanted to touch because it was the first book of poetry that had entered our house? What was her problem?
I found out later that night. After supper, my mother corralled my older sister and me into my bedroom. Now my older sister didn’t volunteer at a convent. At one time, she had pictures of Shaun Cassidy up in her room. And she was in high school, and had to wear an itchy kilt that she hiked up at school when my mother wasn’t there to see. And then my inquisition began, or rather, continued. I was asked again, what I knew about this period business. My sister, bless her, cut the inquisition short by telling me what it was, and that it would happen to me some day. And that would have been that. Except, for my mother, it wasn’t. So while my sister and I listened, and looked at each other with what at first began as curious, then turned to embarrassed, and then eventually became confused looks, my mother launched into a lengthy discussion of not nice men, and what they want from women. She explained that men did things to women, and that I would have to be vigilant, and always aware, in order to avoid these men. Although my mother didn’t actually come out and use the term rape, her diatribe went in that direction, explaining that rape was something I would have to defend myself against, protect myself from. It was imperative for a decent lady not to associate with the wrong men, for a nice lady to ensure that when she walked down the aisle in a white wedding dress on her wedding day, that the white of her dress actually meant something.
After all this confusing talk about rape and the seductions of roguish men (which was, in a way, useful, but rather frightening since it was only periods I was confused about), my mother left the room. My sister left too. She didn’t know what to say, except to repeat that the “bleeding thing” was gross, but it would be okay, and besides, she had homework to do.
And so, that was how I learned about periods. A circuitous, bizarre, but now amusing route from childhood into adulthood.
-Renée M. Sgroi
When not working as an educator, and mom to two kids, Renée M. Sgroi is primarily a poet, whose work has appeared in Canadian poetry journals. She is the president of the Brooklin (Ontario) Poetry Society, and is a member of the Association of Italian Canadian Writers (AICW). You can tweet her @ReneeMSgroi.