When I was ten years old, my mother told me about periods. I had never heard anything so earth-shattering in my life, except maybe when my grandmother died.
Back then, we never even discussed pees or poops unless absolutely necessary, and we changed the diapers on my younger siblings with eyes averted, so modest were we.
My aunt was there when my mother told me. She came to help us out because my mother had so many children, and it was summertime on the farm—an incredibly busy season when we filled thousands of Crown jars and Mason jars with endless canning and preserving. We practically drowned in applesauce, tomato juice, rhubarb, strawberries, beans and corn, peaches and pears, pickles and plums.
At ten years old, since I was the eldest child, I already felt the pressure of there being more work than could possibly be done in a day, and I was expected to work alongside my mother without complaint, a song on my lips, no less.
On that fateful day, we were canning tomatoes. My mother paused from cutting up tomatoes when I re-entered the kitchen after a lengthy bathroom break and looked at me oddly. My aunt, still a teenager herself, hovered nearby, that gleam in her eye she always had when she was playing some trick on me that would invariably end with me feeling foolish or humiliated.
“You’re growing up, Louisa,” my mother said, holding the paring knife in her hand. The apron that covered her swelling belly was splattered with bits of tomato guts. “You’re old enough to hear a grownup secret now.”
I must have expanded to twice my size, so pleased was I. Here I thought my mother would scold me for my suspiciously long absence and instead I was to be rewarded with an adult secret?
Because I was an inquisitive child, I had figured out some of the basic facts of life—with the help of the school encyclopedia when I was ostensibly studying science. How I failed to stumble upon this dark event, I will never know.
“This is something you can’t tell your brothers, though. Promise?”
With a small twinge of regret, I promised. I shared everything with my brothers, and if this secret was as big as all that, I would be passing up a huge opportunity to impress them. Maybe I would keep my promise, maybe not, it all depended.
“When girls turn twelve years of age, something happens to them that changes them from a child into a young woman,” my mother began.
The summer kitchen was filled with the fragrance of cooking tomatoes. Squished-up and red, they bubbled and gurgled in a huge pot on the propane cookstove as I speed-processed this information. Despite my vivid imagination and scrambling through my memory boxes for any unusual interactions with twelve-year-old girls, my mind came up totally blank.
“What happens, Mom?”
Bleed? And here I thought this was going to be something special. Besides, everyone bleeds when they cut themselves. I must have seen my twelve-year-old friend Marianne bleed at some point since we spent a lot of time together. I was beyond confused.
“Bleed? Bleed where?”
My mom had a peculiar look in her eye as she said, “Guess.”
After guessing every body part except the least likely spot, I was down to one final, unthinkable guess. “My … behind?”
“Your front.” (It would be a few more years until I learned there was a third option)
Never in my life had I crashed so hard and so fast from high expectations to deep and utter shock. Aunt Annie suppressed a wicked chuckle as she watched my jaw drop to my knees. In that moment, I hated her.
The tomatoes boiled over and hissed as hot juice hit the stove.
My mother told me I must tell her when this happened to me. I did not know if I could. She said she would give me something to wear.
“Wear? What are you talking about?” Up to this point, I’d imagined a brief encounter with blood, perhaps I would even miss it unless I kept a sharp lookout for this embarrassing rite of passage into adulthood. “How long does this last?”
“Around five days.”
“FIVE DAYS! Are you kidding me?” My world spun in a tomato-scented haze as I pictured myself dealing with this blessed event for five whole days. Worse was yet to come.
“You will get it every month.”
I was definitely going into trauma mode by then. No! No! No! My mother then revealed that Aunt Annie was menstruating at the moment, and that the reason she told me about periods is because Aunt Annie needed to ‘take care’—no heavy lifting, no running around, and lots of sitting down. She wanted me to understand why I needed to do more of the work, and to do so more willingly.
My dismay was twofold. Firstly, my heart sank that I’d need to redouble my efforts with the tomato canning. It was a messy job. Secondly, and worstly, came the realization that Aunt Annie was older than twelve.
“Hey! But Annie is fifteen! Why is she still getting her period?”
“Because women get it every month until they are forty.”
“You mean…you mean, you still get it?” My gaze skimmed across her rounded stomach and down lower. I felt sickened.
“Yes,” she lied. “But you don’t ask married women about their periods.”
By now, I was thoroughly deflated and struggling to come to terms with the humiliating realities of being a woman. I was in too much of a daze to absorb her reassuring words. “This is a normal part of growing up. All healthy women experience it.”
Suddenly, a sense of injustice reared its head. I had five brothers and was keenly aware that they had certain advantages over girls. “You mean boys don’t get it?”
“No,” my mother said. Cruel, cruel world.
By the time my aunt showed me the apparatus to wear—an elastic belt with an old rolled-up diaper pinned to it—I was too numb to react. “Oh,” I said, and turned my back.
In silence, I cranked tomatoes through the juicer for the rest of that day.
More sneak peeks into the encyclopedia at school erased any lingering hopes that my mother and my aunt had been lying.
For Christmas when I was twelve, I received the gift of womanhood.
Bloody Merry Christmas!
Louisa Bauman lives in Toronto, Canada, and enjoys the view of the city from her fifteenth-floor balcony. She is the author of two historical fiction novels, Sword of Peace and Sister, Fight Valiantly, plus a picture book, True Story of a Lamb. For more, visit her website louisambaumanauthor.com