Growing up in the early ’80s, it was uncommon to have a mom and dad who, by the time I was 7, were already 45 and 55. Although most of my friends’ parents were a decade, or even two, younger, I didn’t think that my parents’ age had much bearing on me — until I was 9 and I unrolled my bedding at sleep away camp. As my Keds-clad bunk mates decorated their beds with plush blankets full of cuddly bears, blooming flowers, and bursting hearts, I pulled out my dad’s gray and camouflage-green army blankets that he last used during the Korean War. So much for being girly and “normal” like everyone else.
A few years later I began to stare with envy at the smooth legs of the girls around me. My mother, however, staunchly believed that shaving was appropriate only for the 16-plus crowd. Determined not to fall behind, I saved my allowance for months and secretly purchased a razor and a tube of shaving cream. After my inaugural shower and shear, I ran into my mother in the hallway. She raised both of her perfectly coiffed eyebrows and asked me where one of mine went.
I rushed to the mirror — and gasped. My left brow was gone! Slowly the progression of improbable events came together. I’d knocked into the shower caddy and my razor had fallen onto my face, although how I didn’t notice is anyone’s guess. Logistics aside, I couldn’t hide at home for the next few months so in a dramatic fashion reserved for hormonal young girls, I dropped onto the shag-carpeted floor of our den and prayed for death, or a facial transplant.
“This’ll fix it,” my mother sympathized the following morning while painting on a new brow with eyeliner — something she’d done every morning, down to the shave, before her secretarial job at a magazine back in the 1960s. That afternoon it rained and my eyebrow streaked down to my chin.
But there was one inevitable “event” that, in my mind, leveled the race to adulthood: menstruation. The fact that I could become pregnant was a badge of pride to be paraded around the locker room, when I glanced at my classmates’ rounded hips and developing breasts before swim class, wondering if the girl nearby was a bleeder or not.
Unfortunately, it was slow going for an 89-pound, flat-chested bra stuffer like me. Never ones for long discussions about difficult subjects, my parents skipped the birds-and-the-bees talk, and so I was left to read the literature I stole from the nurse’s office. The pamphlets may have said that puberty would arrive at my body’s discretion, but I was undeterred and attempted to coax out my first menstrual cycle by wearing pads every day, as if my ovaries could sense the super absorbent cotton I’d affixed to my underpants. When that didn’t work, I found tampons, which were not even yet discussed among my peers. Figuring the instructions for insertion were grossly incorrect, I instead laid the cotton swab horizontally into the lips of my vagina, its string hanging like some sort of surrendering flag of my childhood. My period still faltered and I watched from the sidelines as so many of my comrades completed the race to young adulthood. It was then that I fell into my first bout of true jealousy.
Given my eagerness, it was only fitting that “Aunt Flo” arrived while I was staying with my father at the apartment that he’d rented just months after he and my mother divorced. There wasn’t a menstruating woman to mitigate my confusion/excitement/panic in sight — or tell my dad that I was actually now a woman. So after countless trial conversations with my mirror I told him about the situation. Looking stricken, he passed me five bucks, pointed me in the direction of the nearest drug store, and told me to “do what I needed to do.”
Later that night, after I was dropped off at my mother’s apartment, I was presented with what was apparently called a “Kotex belt.” Made up of white elastic that fits around one’s waist, along with two plastic clips that conveniently attached to each end of the pad, my mom explained that the device was once popular and useful. I needn’t worry about leakage when this all-powerful strap kept my “napkin” in place. At that point, doubled over from cramps and, happy for any guidance, I placed the belt under my sleepwear that night, and then below the waistband of my jeans the following morning. My mom was right. That pad stayed put.
At lunch the following afternoon I proudly told my friends that the day before I got my period. There were squeals all around. Finally, I was in the know — and to capitalize on this moment there was only one thing left to do. I announced, “I’m wearing the belt now too,” while tugging at my waistband for emphasis.
There was confusion first, then stunned shock, and finally a collective “what?” that, I swear, echoed around the cafeteria for at least five minutes.
Suddenly my face was as red as the very blood that was collecting in my super-plus-ultra-absorbing-maxi-with-wings. Apparently no one had heard of or worn what was currently affixed around my waist. The only belts these girls wore were chunky and from the Gap. I left the table, shamed and cursing my mom and her 1953-like ways, the year which, incidentally, she was 12. At home that night I stuffed the belt into the farthest reaches of my underwear drawer and vowed never to take advice from her, or my father by proxy, again. It was a resolution I stuck to throughout high school — for better or for worse.
About fifteen years later I rediscovered the elastic artifact while cleaning out my bedroom. Upon seeing the belt again for the first time in nearly a decade I charged into my mom’s bedroom and laid it down on her comforter.
“Remember this?” I asked.
My mom leaned in and inspected it as if it were some sort of prehistoric fossil which, frankly, it was.
“Why’d you stop wearing it? Was it not helpful?” she’d asked earnestly, unaware of how that one item had decimated her credibility for years.
It was at that moment that I realized something that had been lost in re-telling “the belt” story to friends. My mom (and my dad for that matter) had tried to help me the best way they knew how. Even though I’d ended up humiliated, they had actually been right all along: with the belt that pad had stayed put and didn’t leak, my dad’s army blankets were as warm as promised, and my fake eyebrow had looked fine (until the rainstorm). That’s the thing about looking back at embarrassing moments: it’s easy to remember the rush of emotions, but not necessarily the intentions.
“I don’t know. I guess I just forgot about it,” I lied, grabbing the belt from the bedspread and tossing it in a nearby garbage bag.
Later as I helped my mom pack up her walk-in closet, I surveyed the decades-old clothes she wore before I was born, all neatly preserved under dry-cleaner’s plastic. I may not have thought her bell-bottomed jeans and silk blouses were cool in 1994, but now they were infinitely more appealing. When she offered me a pair of red suede and leather knee-high boots she’d worn in the ’70s, I said yes instantly, and as pulled them on I wondered why I’d not seen them before. Was I so focused on her multi-colored Reebok high tops, worn from 1985 through ’97, that I’d missed the fact that my mom was actually hipper than I thought all along?
As I studied the way they perfectly hugged my calves in her mirror, my mom came over and slipped a braided belt around my waist.
“What do you think? Don’t they look good together?” she asked.
In a matter of seconds I was back in that grimy middle school cafeteria as a Kotex threaded belt pinched my waist. Everyone has a moment that is sometimes just too much to return to.
“No mom,” I said, gently pushing her offer away. “I don’t wear belts.”