[This is my first-ever blog post, published July 22, 2014. I like to think of it as a measuring stick of the past year. My surgery sites were still raw; my abs were a flabby mess; I hadn’t started exploring online dating; and I had no idea why I was telling my story. People tell me that I’m brave for being honest and that they share many of my frustrations with modern life, which has lost so much graciousness, despite technology and political correctness. If nothing else, I make most of you laugh, so, who am I to complain? Thanks for joining me on my spiritual journey!]
Last night, I did something with my daughter that I never would have done with my mother. We stood in front of my bathroom mirror comparing our naked breasts. Stay with me.
Did you ever do that with your mother? Neither did I. I’m 62, raised in the 1950’s & ’60’s by a mom of the 1930’s and ’40’s. Her most damning phrase was “That’s tacky.” Until I was nearly 40, I worried about being dirty, wrinkled, mismatched, frizzy, and tacky. My two earliest childhood memories are learning to tie the laces of my white high-topped, leather shoes into tidy bows and being fitted for white cotton gloves. I couldn’t have been older than four, but I was mesmerized by the little drawers of gloves in the girls’ department at the J.L. Hudson, Company in downtown Detroit. Plain or bows? Are you kidding me? I wanted the ones with the shiny pearl buttons!
Maybe your parents were “progressive.” Mine came from that pragmatic, Depression-Era generation of hardworking blue collar-to-middle-class families with what are currently called “traditional values.” My father, a first-generation Italian-American and proud Marine Corps veteran, leaned toward the conservative. My mother’s family was from the fearless stock of English-Scots-Irish who settled Kentucky in the 18th century. No whining allowed. Have a problem? Figure out how to solve it or climb over it and move on. My sister and I were expected to go to college and graduate. I learned to sew, cook, manage money, mow the lawn, change a tire, check the oil, mix concrete, and lay bricks. Before feminism took hold in the 1960’s, we were learning to survive.
Mom was a minor progressive on matters of feminine independence. When I begged for one of the newly-marketed “training” bras that my girlfriends proudly wore, my mother scoffed, “What are they training? You don’t want to wear a bra. They’re uncomfortable, and besides, you don’t have anything to put in one.” [Be careful what you wish for.]
In the 5th grade, the girls in my class, accompanied by their mothers or a female guardian, were treated to the Disney-produced and Kotex-sponsored The Story of Menstruation. (Sex education in the mid-20th century.) On the walk home after the screening, armed with pamphlets, Mom’s only comment was, “When your ‘time’ comes, they’re in the linen closet.” Well, yes, I saw a small box of Kotex pads, but what were those mysterious paper-wrapped sticks in the Tampax box that was replaced much more frequently than the Kotex box?
Two years later, my ‘time’ arrived. Mom showed me how to loop the gauzy ends of the bulky Kotex pad through the metal teeth in the “Sanitary Belt” yet encouraged me to use tampons. At the age of 12, I was squeamish, more by the idea of having such a conversation with my mother than the actual process. Well, I lie. Probably more by the process.
She rolled her eyes and said, “You don’t know what you’re missing.” Huh? I’m going to put that hulking dry, cardboard thing where? [Listen to your mother.]
By the time I was 17 and desperate to wear a bathing suit for my waterskiing boyfriend, she had the last laugh. “I can’t help you with this. You have to go into the bathroom and do it yourself. Here’s the hand mirror.”
She was right, of course. They were waaay better than the monthly bulkiness, the shifting, and the inevitable leakage. She-who-claims-to-know-everything suddenly turned into a font of wisdom.
Seven years later, at age 24, I was recovering from a complete hysterectomy. (No, it wasn’t due to the tampons.) I had a raging case of endometriosis. Cysts as large as volleyballs and baseballs, according to my doctors, pulsated in my ovaries, and others were exploding like tiny time-bombs, gumming up my insides. In her droll and always honest way, my mother asked, “What are you going to do with all the money you save on tampons?”
Now, my own daughter is 22 and has little knowledge of and no use for white cotton gloves, but, I am proud to say, she recognizes “tacky” when she sees it. I’m not going to embarrass her by discussing her introduction to tampons, but let’s just say that it involved a mirror, a wet suit, and sharks. Well, no, there were no actual sharks in the bathroom with us, just a discussion about their olfactory sensitivity. There was also no dry, hulking cardboard in sight, just marvelous, smooth, modern plastic.
Two-and-a-half months ago, I had reduction mammoplasty (google it—I’m still my mother’s somewhat-squeamish daughter). You see, my five foot-tall frame appeared to be on the verge of toppling over at any moment, as I could no longer straighten my shoulders. I stuffed myself into minimizer bras and swathed myself in baggy sweaters. What seems like a glamorous blessing really is a pain in the neck—and the spine and the shoulders and the self-esteem. Turns out, I was carrying over two pounds of extra weight on my chest, like strapping a Yellow Pages directory between my armpits.
My daughter, the critical care nurse, was a great caregiver. You know. What we hope our children will be for us in our old age? During the three-and-a-half hour outpatient (!) surgery, she returned to her nearby apartment to play with her cats and to catch something on Xfinity On Demand (which, to me, means it can be watched at any time other than when your dearly beloved is in surgery).
In fairness, I easily survived the surgery; she drove me home, stayed overnight, changed my massive ice packs, expertly stripped, emptied, and measured my bloody drain tubes every four hours, and force fed me oxycodone. OK, OK. She didn’t shove it down my throat, but she gave me the Nurse Ratched routine and insisted I swallow it. [Note to self: Revisit that mirror/wet suit incident and a caregiver who is my sole heir.]
Last night, there we were, looking at our naked breasts, noticing how different they are. My rehabbed pair appear to have been transplanted from a stranger and are oddly and happily perky for a 62-year old woman. They are also subtly scarred, bruised, and lumpy and will be for at least another year. Just like my hysterectomy scar, traces of this recent surgery will always remain. But, I figure, the boy for whom I was willing to experiment with tampons has been gone for three years, and I don’t expect anyone other than a medical professional will ever get close enough to notice.
Oh, come on! Put your tiny violins away! Insurance paid for most of the surgery. I feel fabulous and can see my feet for the first time in years. My girlfriends say I look 20 years younger. My new, youthful bustline (as Jane Russell would say in the old Playtex commercials) has inspired me to work on my abs, now that I can see how flabby they are.
My mother, at 86, still knows everything and feels free to dole out advice. These days, she rarely tells me
that I look tacky, but I still wouldn’t dream of sharing my breasts with her in a mirror. My daughter isn’t embarrassed to discuss anything with me, although I have learned to text “TMI” to her when she makes me squeamish. I am easily old enough to be her grandmother, so the generational chasm between us is often profound. And, yes, both she and my mother approved this post, so, who am I to complain? Life is good (mostly). Soli Deo gloria!