In The Red — Part 2
by Sandy Baker
Time during the summer of 1956 slowed to a trickle for me. Going to the fourth grade in the fall was not going to be the joyful experience I once thought it would be. Thinking ahead about my new bloody companion and how I would navigate school made me extremely anxious. It was like sticking my finger in an electrical outlet — not enough voltage to kill me, but strong enough to keep things uncomfortable. That was the downside of knowing things would be awry, instead of living in the blissful ignorance of a cheery young girl.
Mother Nature was compounding my fears. She was unswervingly transforming my body, millimeters at a time without consulting with me, once more. I did not like being helpless. I was beginning to feel like some sort of unkempt flower garden, as things started sprouting up on my body. And it was happening so fast, I was breathing as if my body was starved of oxygen.
Why was there more pain now? I thought to myself. It did not make sense to my nine-year-old self. I kept thinking, maybe, I am really all messed up. Mother Nature caused me to menstruate way early. That had to be a mistake. She was now making more trouble. Why me? Nothing had hurt me with such intensity before, until my period began. I knew I had grown a lot, when I compared myself to my baby shoes and the few little dresses my mother had kept, so I thought I understood “growing.”
What was happening now was unnerving. I was being invaded. I had no control. My body didn’t belong to me. These were different pains, not just stomach cramps. My chest hurt, my legs hurt, and my feet ached whether I moved or not. The urge to cry repeatedly came and then left, like soap bubbles raining off my skin when I bathed.
I spent a million minutes in my room sulking with a long sad face whose eyes were as immobile as the rest of my body. Fear was paralyzing. I could not move. I pretended to talk, only if my mother spoke to me. I answered in one-word sentences – Yes. No. Maybe. Going out to play in the Police Athletic League street games on my block held little interest for me now. I heard my mother call my name from the kitchen. I would sit stiff for several seconds, as my mind called my eyes back from an internal search for answers. It had been a disappointing trip as I found more questions instead. As I shifted my thoughts back to my mother, the corners of my mouth resumed their customary softness. I perked up as she approached with her bright face and upbeat manner.
“Are you okay?” she asked with her eyes as bright as sunshine.
“Are you sure I’m not all smashed up inside, Mommy? Did I do something to make Mother Nature angry at me?” I asked, with my eyes trying to look past her gaze. I wished to be a wizard, so I’d know what she knew deep inside her head. I wanted to believe whatever she’d tell me.
“No, no, Yvonne, you are not broken,” she said. “There is no problem. You are just way ahead of other girls. What’s happening to you is all part of becoming a woman. I promise you, a one-hundred percent guarantee, the same things are going to happen to every girl you know.”
“Am I really going to be okay?” And after a long pause, “For real? Everything hurts. What am I supposed to do? Do boys have the same experiences when they start to become men?”
“I see it’s painful for you,” my mother told me. “It will be better in time and the body aches will stop. Do not ask me when, because I do not know. You are unique. It will be different for every girl, but it is going to happen.
“Occupy yourself with things you enjoy,” she continued, her voice calm and reassuring. “Try not to think about what hurts so much. Why don’t you make me some drawings and I’ll frame my favorites?”
She knew the word “frame” would elicit a full-teeth smile. Framing represented “being kept,” a tender caress that made my heart flutter. It sweetened the creative light deep within me. Her acknowledgement of my hurt helped a little too. I understood clearer when I was older, that my mother was trying to mentally disconnect me from my pain. She wanted to protect my brain from the unwelcome torment that was bearing down on me.
“But what about boys, Ma?”
“Let’s not worry about them. Male bodies are different. Babies can’t spend nine months growing in their tummies.”
“Have patience, Darlin’. It will pass,” she continued, as she looked at me sorrowfully, gently squeezing me at my shoulders.
I was trying to think optimistically, hoping somehow things would improve. I appreciated what my mom said, but ugh! As I looked around, I was still miserable and not a single thing had changed. No day went by that I didn’t miss that part of me that was gone — that happy little girl. Not a minute flew past without my heart crying softly for what had been. I did not see any chance of anything being different or becoming better. My life was like deep gooey mud, though I could shift my weight from one foot to another, but I couldn’t escape.
If anyone were to ask me what specifically I learned in fourth grade, I would not be able to answer. Fourth grade happened, but I was preoccupied. My own private cloud hung heavy over me. I was overwhelmed. I did have the written evidence of my attendance, with good grades on my report card. I had made it through the school year, though I was more consumed with the shocking and upsetting changes happening to my body along the way.
My mother told me of her plan to arrange to have my supplies kept in the school nurse’s office so I could retrieve whatever I needed when necessary, without me having to carry things with me all the time. That idea appealed to me. I breathed easier. It might also give me someone else I would be able to talk to.
This was at the time when the New York City Board of Education began having school nurses travel between two or three schools a week. My school’s nurse was no longer going to be in her office every day, all day. The perfect solution was yanked away just like that. I was mortified about the possibility of being delayed in class. I might have to wait too long for permission to leave the room to change my pad. I could end up accidentally having a blood stain on the outside of my clothes that everyone would see. I’d be so ashamed and embarrassed that I would have to change schools.
Using the toilet prior to this, was straightforward. Now I felt like I needed extra arms like the Hindu goddess Shiva, who had four, to keep up with all I had to do in this production in the toilet stall. The drama began with how I dressed at home. My mother made it sound simple enough, until I had to do the work. This was her alternate solution, so I could keep what I needed close at hand. It was a functional plan, but it depended on me, just me, doing everything exactly right.
The safety-pinning of extra sanitary supplies to the inside of a sleeveless scoop neck under-shirt, I now had to wear under my clothes was annoying. I hated it. It was uncomfortable. I felt like the asbestos insulation wrapped around the pipes near the ceiling in the school bathroom. When spring weather approached, I felt tiny sweat beads on my forehead and perspiration dripping down my back as my upper body was encased in an extra layer that had other smaller pieces attached, that lay next to my now-clammy skin. I was so warm that I felt like a chicken stuffed and ready to hit a hot oven. But I had to stay focused. This was not play acting. I also had to be oh so careful, doing all in the proper order.
The bathroom action was a full-on ballet with me probably looking like a daughter the Frankenstein monster had built himself. It began with me stopping at the sink to moisten two paper towels with warm water for preliminary cleanup of myself while I was in the stall. It was awkward with my arms going this way and that and my head bent down so I could hold stuff under my chin, clothing held under my armpits, and more, just to change and dispose of a single sanitary napkin and put myself back together before exiting.
It was enormously challenging. I wanted applause and to take a bow for the hard work, if I did everything right and still had managed not to put my soiled hands on my outer clothing. There was no audience, just me in that dreary gray and dingy public-school bathroom. The smallest amount of dried menstrual blood had a strong foul odor that adhered to clothing until it was laundered. For me to do this — a 9-year-old — a few times a day was exhausting and ruthless. I missed the eight-year-old me. If I’d had a choice, I would have preferred to stay home. I was being as discreet as I could be. I wanted to protect my privacy. I had no intention of talking to any schoolmate about my nightmare.
Out of necessity, I became an expert on something normally inconsequential to most folks — the thickness of the stem parts of safety pins. If they were too thin they’d bend easily and I stab myself causing a sore finger needing a bandage, which would garner eyes back in the classroom. It would also cause an interruption in the ballet. Good safety pins were essential to my survival for this situation that I had been forced to endure prematurely. I certainly did not want to be the only little fourth-grade girl carrying both a purse and a book bag, the equivalent of a backpack, to school. The scrutiny I’d receive from annoying busy-body girls and my other classmates would have distressed me to the point of panic, causing me to lose my focus.
Older girls, starting at seventh grade, carried purses containing their hair combs, lip gloss and other personal items, so if this little fourth-grader carried a purse, I’d be a sunflower in a field of daisies. I just wanted to tuck my head down and be regular. There’s something about blending in, which feels safe.
When I think about it now, this was about when I stopped playing racing games in the courtyard at recess or jumping Double Dutch with my friends. The absolute fear of a pad becoming dislodged and falling out in public was paralyzing. I did not want to move. The feeling was like being surrounded by an out-of-control forest fire with no way out. I didn’t reengage even when I wasn’t menstruating. The fear had left a huge indelible wound on my psyche. Keeping my legs close together, and my feet on the ground was my way of easing my mind and comforting myself without saying a word.
I did eventually discover ads for tampons while flipping through the pages of a teen girls’ magazine on a rack at the library. I asked my mother again about this newfound information and she was not interested. She only repeated her instructions for appropriate disposal of soiled pads. I think Caribbean women, the ones I had access to, dealt with this womanly event like they always did — sticking to the old ways and ignoring anything else. I was undeterred.
Tampons, if I could figure out how to use them, offered me a way out of my dilemma. I thought about this for over a year or two. I used the time to read up about internal aids in other magazines and books. No one paid particular attention to my immersion into anatomy, as I was known for drawing. They knew I was trying to master the rendering of human bodies better. I was actually studying about how the inside of my body worked.
Determined, I released some of my precious allowance that I usually saved for book and magazine acquisitions and bought a box of 40 Tampax tampons for $2.49. I taught myself how to use them through the pictures on the package. I did not tell anyone. It was challenging and sometimes uncomfortable to learn, but I was desperate. I did scold myself for experimenting, with me as the specimen.
I vividly recall pinching tender areas inside myself a couple of times as delicate parts of me got caught between the two sliding cardboard encasing tubes. Back in those days, cardboard was standard. The smoother, less bulky, more manageable plastic outer casings didn’t come on the market until I was about 14. And they weren’t perfect because they couldn’t be flushed in the toilet, meaning I now had something to dispose of outside of the bathroom stall.
Having a period every single month, never transitioned to a pain-free experience at any point.