My understanding of the birds and the bees existed under a thick blanket of secrecy in the house of my childhood. When I was ten or so, I asked my mother “What is sex?” She responded, “All you need to know is to check the box that says female.” Her pursed lips put a halt to any future questions. When I got my period, I knew I wasn’t dying thanks to Judy Blume’s “Are You There God Its Me Margaret.” Unfortunately, though, the first time it happened, we were at Grandma Rose’s stuffy little house in Elizabethton, Tennessee, at the foot of Lynn Mountain with its giant sign that says JESUS SAVES in huge RED block letters. I couldn’t tell my grandmother. Something about that sign made me feel like I was too soiled for saving. I couldn’t tell my mother. Surely she’d make a scene and rush me out the door to the Dollar Store across from Taco John’s.
I folded up a washcloth and stuffed it in my underpants and walked around bowlegged for the remainder of the trip and sat uncomfortably on my wad of terrycloth for the six-hour ride home to Raleigh. Grandma at some point must have noticed her washcloth supply had greatly diminished following our visit. I, meanwhile, had a Wonder Bread bag full of rags that I stuffed in a McDonald’s Happy Meal box and buried it in the trashcan by the side of our house. I even offered to take my brother’s job of scooping up the dog poop and dumped it on top of the trash pile to further ensure my secret wouldn’t become knowledge.
Shame and secrecy marked my journey to womanhood.
When I finally did tell my mother, she admonished me that tampons were not to be used until I was married. She threatened me with Toxic Shock Syndrome. A virtually certainty, she said. Use one of those forbidden wads of cotton and "you’ll wake up to see a rash all over your body and just as you call for help, you’ll have a seizure and it will be too late."
But my first attempt at 8th grade Phys Ed wearing a giant Kotex pad was an awkward disaster. I decided that toxicity was worth the risk. I took to stuffing the evidence in paper grocery bags and hiding them in the trashcan under dog poop. This went on for a couple of years until one day, mom found the Tampax box I’d hidden on the bookshelf behind my dusty collection of Nancy Drew books. I came home from school to find wrappers, cardboard applicators and cotton inserts shredded around my room like a blizzard of feminine protection. Mom figured I’d learn my lesson in wastefully spending my hard-earned babysitting dollars, but I only became more stealth in my storage and more determined to keep my life’s personal journey to myself.
She repeatedly reminded me: Good girls wait. You know you’ll go to hell if you get too close to a boy before you are married. God see’s all.
And Mom sabotaged my relationships with boys in High School, figuring if we didn’t spend enough time together, there would be no chance for sex. “I think I saw your friend David kissing a girl by Sam Goody at the mall today,” said mom, planting seeds for conflict in a once budding romance. “You have her home no later than 10pm,” mom wagged a finger as I left the house on a first date, “And no hanky panky!” she’d call out as we walked down the driveway. I soon discovered there was quite a lot you could do in the far corner of the Methodist church parking lot and still make curfew. Surely it was too dark for God to see?
By the time I got to college, just thirty miles from home, I was grateful to be out from under mom’s microscope. Still, the deeply engrained guilt kept my legs closed and my boyfriends confused. “If a boy can’t wait, then he isn’t worth it,” played in my head as one relationship after another ended because I couldn’t break through my inner conflict.
However, when I moved to Los Angeles, I was fully free from mom’s watchful eye, and it seemed perhaps God’s as well. “I don’t know why you feel like you have to move out to Sin City,” she said. Oh, but I think it was pretty clear.
By the time I met my now husband, I’d sowed my wild oats and God had gotten quite a show. Meanwhile, back in Raleigh, my little sisters were teenagers and now hiding their own tampons. My mother’s paranoia of her daughters breaking commandments had grown to the point that she even hired a private detective to follow them to see if drugs or sex were part of their near-daily trips to the local mall. Sometimes while eating in the food court, my youngest sister reported seeing mom herself hiding behind a pillar.
Not long after we were engaged, my fiancé and I traveled to North Carolina so I could get a wedding gown and we could celebrate with friends. We were 29 and had been living together for a year. Still my mother insisted we stay in separate rooms. One morning mom said she was going to the 10am mass at St. Michaels. My fiancé winked at me from behind the Sports section of the News and Observer. Finally, we had some time to ourselves in my childhood home. Mass takes at least an hour plus the ten minutes travel time each way. We had the house for at least 80 lust-filled minutes!
Mere moments after we saw the tan Honda pull out of the driveway and head up Old Farm Road, we’d torn off our clothes and fallen onto my middle sister’s twin bed. We were in the throes of passion when I heard the creak of the third-to-the-top-step. A sound I remembered well from childhood. The warning to lower your voice on the phone. The warning to hide the package of cigarettes, the journal or the box of forbidden tampons.
I simultaneously pushed my soon-to-be husband out of the bed and lifted my head to see that mom’s car was indeed in the driveway. She’d somehow silently rolled down the drive, gently closing both the doors to the car and to the house! My fiance sprang toward the un-lockable door where my sister’s bathrobe hung, but didn’t have time to put it on before my mother did her famous “tap-tap-enter” knock of my youth. The quilt was pulled up to cover my bare shoulders and I’m sure my facial expression was a priceless blend of “What-the-hell-are-you-doing-home?” And “Damn-it!-we-were-so-close!” mixed with a childish reversion to “I wasn’t doing anything!” I was focused on my mother’s righteous face and her very close proximity to my fiance’s erection-turned-doorstop.
“I changed my mind about mass today. Everything ok in here?” she asked, taking in the room with her practiced sweeping glance, but thankfully not looking behind the door.
“I needed a little more rest,” I lied, wondering what she would have done with the information she’d so sneakily tried to attain? If she’d seen my soon-to-be-husband naked, what would she have said? As she headed to mass that day, had she determined that the more righteous use of her time would be stopping fornication rather than later having to ask for forgiveness for her parenting failure? And perhaps most importantly, was she going to make me return my white wedding dress?