Growing up without a mother was always going to be tough but not always in the ways you would think. I grew up in a family that practiced modesty.
We didn’t talk about body parts, puberty or sex. Perhaps my parents thought school would fill us in. It didn’t. The dictionary was my only resource and I was crushed to find that words like ‘boob’ or ‘front bottom’ were not listed. My knowledge was scant.
I had two grandmothers, my mom had three sisters, my aunts. I had another aunt on my father’s side. At church I called several women ‘auntie.’ Not one of them stepped forward to walk me through puberty. It was just me and the library. My sister took pity on me when she found me stuffing toilet tissue into my knickers.
“Go see the woman in the post office” she advised.
Full of optimistic naiveté, I walked down the road to the post office, which was housed at the bottom of our road. It was part of a classic British row of shops - mini-mart, fish and chip shop, hairdresser, newsagent and post office. The post office was within a shop selling mostly hardware or cleaning products. The one employee would use a key to unlock the post office counter when needed. I stood awkwardly while she sold stamps to an older lady.
“Can I help you?”
“Erm, I, uhm, my sister said I should talk to you.”
My bright scarlet face was clearly not going to clue her in. I was mortified and angry. She was supposed to know.
Was she really going to make me say “it” here, in the post office?
Maybe my sister was supposed to have given me a code word. I shuffled my feet and felt my cheeks burn.
“Oh” she said, “I see.”
She beckoned me to the shelves. There was an array of plastic packets.
“Do you have a belt?”
Of course I have a belt – it holds my jeans up, why? Was she going to make me remove my clothes? Did I have to have a fitting?
Could the floor just swallow me up please.
“Yes – I have a belt.”
“OK, here you go then.”
She put my packet into a brown paper bag, I paid with the money I’d brought from my piggy bank and bolted.
Back at home, I was confronted by a thick pad with loops at either end. Why? I read the packet, ‘Put the loops through your sanitary belt’ it instructed.
The belt. Damn it. I didn’t have that kind of belt. I was a motherless, twelve year old, how would I have that kind of belt?
I trudged back to the post office. “No belt,” I mumbled.
In 1980’s Britain, returning items was not done, unless, they were broken or defective. The only defect here was that my mother was dead and no-one had considered that I might need to know about periods, but I had no more money and the toilet tissue was not going to get me through school, so I stood there with a slightly defiant look on my tortured, red face. She saw my despair and swopped the packet for one with the sticky strips.
This is where we all sigh with relief. I had my products, all was well.
Except. Here’s where the modesty issue raises it’s ugly head again. I knew nothing about my body, not even the names for its parts. Unless you count “front bottom” which is really just plain misleading. Anything below the belly button was to be hidden, unexplored and generally ignored. I didn’t think about it, look at it or acknowledge it. I could experience embarrassment about my nethers while alone in the bathroom. So when I took my shiny new packet of sanitary products up to the bathroom I just blindly popped a pad into my undies and got out of there as quickly as possible. It was weeks later that I finally confided in a school friend that I had got my period. We giggled and gossiped about PMS and then I uttered the words that would plague me through the rest of high school – four long years....
“Doesn’t it really hurt when you pull the pad off and some of your hairs come with it?”
My friend rolled on the floor laughing for around ten minutes before she could finally tell me that the sticky strip should be applied to your knickers - not you.
I find it ironic that women now pay good money for that service every six weeks or so. I should have patented it.