I stood at the counter, shaking. In one hand, a crinkled $5 bill. In the other, Always Super Overnight maxi pads with wings. Before this, I had been a carefree innocent child. Now, I was in charge of not bleeding through my underpants. I was 11 years old.
Sensing my discomfort, the cashier quickly double-bagged my purchase and handed me my change back in pity. She must have thought I had no mother.
But I did have a mother. Her eggs were just dry.
“It’s going to happen when you’re 11,” my mother used to tell me every time I tried to enjoy my final months of being ten. “I was 11 when I got my first period. Your grandmother was 11 when she got her first period. That’s when you’re going to get your first period.”
There was nothing on earth that I dreaded more than my period. The growing boobs, the hairy legs, the smelly pits — let the rain of puberty fall down upon me. But the blood gushing out of my hoo-ha? That would require an announcement.
And God, how I hated announcements.
You know how sometimes you go to a party and there’s a weird dude just standing in the corner staring at the floor? That was me my whole childhood. Quiet to the point some may have thought I was mute, I wanted no attention, no fanfare, not even a birthday cake. The less you knew I was around, the better it was for all of us. No muss. No fuss.
My mother, who was 38 when she had me and whom everyone assumed was my grandma, wanted the fuss. Any excuse to bond — whether it be over homework or movies or my changing body — she pounced at the opportunity. I would have rather gnawed off my own uterus.
And then I turned 11.
“Is everything okay in there?” my mother would ask every time I went to the bathroom. “You have to let me know if you see any blood.” Before the underwear even hit my knees, my lady bits were in full distress. Every day. At least three times a day. Knock, knock. Who’s there? It’s the period police.
If she had any sense of social cues, my mother might have picked up on the fact that I was swallowed by my shoulders any time she even looked at me. But none of that mattered; she was a shark out for blood. Coming soon to toilets everywhere: LORI’S 11TH-YEAR PERIOD.
Then it came. In the bathroom at the dentist while my mother was getting her teeth cleaned. After months of knock-knocks and inquisitions, I had finally found a safe space to urinate and my ovaries straight-up betrayed me. A bloody piece of scrunched-up toilet paper sat in my hands and the dreaded announcement to my mother lingered in my future. I was gutted.
I waited until we got home to tell her. She was starting a load of laundry and I presented my stained underwear like a sacrificial offering. “I think I got my period.”
She contained her excitement until a full fabric examination and a quick sniff confirmed my findings. “Yep, that’s blood! Welcome to womanhood!” For the next twenty minutes, my mother demonstrated every step of how to use a “sanitary napkin” like some perky QVC host trying to push product — all the while I sat on the edge of the bed wishing I was 12. She then showed me the closet where stuffed between a bunch of slippers and a stack of handbags, she kept her stash of feminine products. “Anytime you need them, you just come in here and get them.”
It was the only part of her presentation I needed: an open door to never having to bring up my shedding uterus again. I had fulfilled the 11th-year prophecy. I knew where to go to take of my needs. We were now done. Even if I started bleeding out pasta sauce the following morning, I was never talking about my period again.
In the months that followed, I kept to my word. I was an independent 11-year-old woman with an endless supply of free maxi pads and a carefree existence. There were no more bathroom interruptions. No more announcements. I was skipping through life like a middle-aged woman on the beach in a Tampax commercial.
Then my mother menopaused. Because, of course, she did . . .
When my mother got her last period, we were away on a family vacation. ”It was the heaviest flow I’ve ever had!” I’d hear her telling her friends on the phone when we got back. “I think that’s it for me!” She was right. As the months went by, the stocked closet I had relied on so heavily grew smaller and smaller until one day it was gone. My mother didn’t need it anymore, so somehow she forgot I still did.
Maybe my mother did it on purpose. Maybe she wanted to force me into talking to her. Maybe she thought once I asked, we could browse the aisles of Rite Aid together and laugh at how funny it was that only four months after starting this journey, her old cooter had left me in the lurch. But it wasn’t happening. As I stuffed my underwear with rolled-up pieces of toilet paper, I decided I would rather leak bits of my ovaries across the kitchen floor than ask my mother to remember I was a menstruator. Maybe she thought I enjoyed living this way. Maybe she didn’t think anything at all.
I sat across from my mother in the living room as she continued to recount the story of her menopause time and time again. The heaviest flow of my LIFE and then it just STOPPED! Had she noticed that my backside looked like I was wearing a diaper?
In every other aspect of my life, my mother was a supportive caregiver. Every day she made sure my stomach was full. I didn’t have to ask for dinner. She made sure I had bedding and clothing. Didn’t have to beg for shoes. There was always a roof over my head — even though every month I now wished it would cave in on me — but still, it was there. After an almost obsession with the arrival of this monthly burden, I could not comprehend how we had gotten to this point. Are you there, Mom? It’s me, your hemorrhaging daughter.
I ended up clogging the toilet twice with my makeshift maxi pads. Standing in a puddle of water acting confused in front of my father was a feat even Meryl Streep would admire. But he had to have known. How could anyone not have known?? I was walking around with a dumpy ass, half of our toilet paper was missing and the bathroom floor was covered in piss.
Feel like knocking now, MOM?
All I wanted was some sense of normalcy. For months I would walk to our neighborhood grocery store — the only place I could go without supervision — just to stare up at the Kotex boxes inches from the ceiling, and pray for an earthquake. What was it about convenience stores that had to make everything as inconvenient as possible? I couldn’t even talk to my own mom; now I was supposed to point out period pads to a teenage box boy and ask for assistance. I’d wear toilet paper until I was 40 before that ever happened.
Thankfully it didn’t have to. My redemption came at a CVS in Scarsdale where my father had taken me and my 8-year-old brother for snacks. At my limit for menstrual roadblocks, I snuck away and purchased my first-ever package of feminine hygiene products before my father even had time to worry about my possible abduction.
When I returned, I kept the bag hidden, but I know my father saw it. Of course he saw it. But he never said a word. Bag after bag. Month after month. Year after year. My mother had abandoned me to flail in my own puberty, but I had figured it out on my own. My father, my accomplice.
Then out of the shadows, she rose again.
For five years, I had managed to scheme my way into feminine product purchases, weaving in and out of drug stores like some celebrity dodging the paparazzi on their way to a pregnancy test. And just as I had become comfortable with this necessary way of life, my mother got a membership to Costco and a newfound memory of her menstruating daughter.
I was standing next to the cart when she did it. Just as casually as she had picked up 18 rolls of paper towels, she picked up 150 Always Regulars, and then moved right on to the dental floss. She said nothing. I said nothing. And I never had to go to CVS ever again.
What brought about the change in this maddening woman? I don’t know. Maybe after five years she finally realized I was the daughter who needed care without conversation. Maybe she thought she’d been buying me pads this whole time and I was the one who didn’t notice. Maybe there was a perfectly logical explanation for this seemingly unexplainable phase of my young pubescent life.
But at 16, I still wasn’t asking and she never told. Almost 30 years later, the mystery remains. I’ve decided some things are better left unsaid.