It was a little chilly, and frogs were known to hop in from the outside pool area, and the traffic from the swimmers coming in to change out of their dripping suits endowed our whole basement with a strong chlorine smell that mixed with mold to repel any but the most earnest privacy seekers from taking up residence in the housekeeper’s old quarters.
I adored the silence and privacy the room afforded, far from my cavorting brothers and sisters two flights up. At night I would turn on the boiler room lights and extinguish my bedroom lamps. Laying down to sleep I could imagine the tiny thumb tack holes in the walls were shining stars and constellations where the light from the boiler room pierced my imaginary sky.
I built a drafting table out of wood scraps from the tool area. Hours and days passed as I copied pictures of Garfield and Ninja Turtles off cereal boxes. Sometimes I would hear the thunder of siblings footsteps galumphing down the stairs, shrieking ‘Ghost in the Graveyard’! to stir up participants. More children’s laughs and shouts drowned out by my concentration, and always guilt for not playing.
The physical remoteness of my room and my discovery of my artistic ambition coincided with my ceasing to play any and all games with my brother and sisters. I would secure my door and ignore their invitations to join in the reindeer games. Once on the occasion of a family reunion, some cousins managed to urge me out of my room for a match of basement ping-pong. My subsequent black eye only swelled my conviction to barricade myself away from any and all relatives, except my dad. He charmed his way in that Sunday morning to apply stage makeup to my blue and green eye where the flying paddle had struck it so I could attend church with the family in dignity. It was a tender moment, and I remember thinking it so odd that my father took up this task. He used several tools from mom’s makeup kit, creating a masterpiece.
My mother underestimated my body’s stasis when she made a pilgrimage to the top of the basement stairs one morning. “Anne!!! She shouted into the dim below. Do you need some pads?” Pause. “Note pads?” I yelled back, opening my door and tripping towards the bottom of the stairs. Before I had time to look up, a massive square plastic pillow sailed down the stairs and hit me in the top of the head. I rushed to collect myself. But the upstairs door slammed shut. I was left to interpret the unidentified package at my feet. Maxipads. I gathered from my mom’s hasty departure that she didn’t want to expand upon our encounter. I tossed the puffy package into the back of my closet.
But not soon after, the incident emboldened me to find out more about this strange unopened package haunting my closet. Sandi Martinez and I were crossing through the empty middle school gym on our way back from lunch. She was an edgy girl, the kind that trafficked touchy info. I also knew that she stole. She had once taken me into a Bodega and clothed me in her big blue track jacket. I didn’t question it until she started shoving cheap bracelets and candy into my pockets. Yes, Jenny Martinez would be just the girl to give me a quick birds and the bees. “Hey Jennifer, have you had your period?” We walked a few more paces in silence. ’Yes!” she chirped. She slowed, exhibiting a flair for drama. “Well what is it really?” I asked. She stopped and bit her lip, looking up at the gym rafters. “It’s…..” “It’s like…. you go to the bathroom and you lay an egg”. “Really?” I was totally grossed out. “Like a chicken?” She seemed uncomfortable. “It’s a really SMALL egg. I asked for more details but her story was too shocking to believe. I was disgusted and we pressed on to exit the gym.
I put the egg out of my mind until a year or so later when my best friend Marni and I were bicycling down the boardwalk of Atlantic City. It was a red bicycle built for two. I peddled along in back. But it was my reproductive system’s time to shine. From that moment, my vacation became more intriguing and complicated. I was far from home. There were a few days left on the trip. I fashioned diapers and cushions out of toilet paper and prayed the entire time that I could get through this without anyone finding out. And no one did.
In high school it was my friend Theresa’s time to ask me about periods. She was a husky unattractive Italian girl with big bones and the kind of hair you should see on a chemistry teacher.
“Anne, are you having your period” she asked loudly. She was sitting near her locker watching me pass to my next class. “No” I lied. But I was wearing white pants and was pretty sure I did not have a red marker in my pocket. “Um, you might want to go to the bathroom” she quietly intoned.
When the sex ed eventually came around, my mom signed forms to withdraw all her children from the class. I think the idea was for the parent to substitute with their own, um training? But Mom said we wouldn’t need to know those things. I guessed she meant because our church would do the teaching.
It was partly true, each year on Mother’s Day a couple of members of our congregation would stand at the pulpit and extol their perfect moms. Tears ran down their cheeks. My mom would sneak out of the chapel before Sunday school with a scowl. As the concluding song would play, priests would troll the aisles looking for anyone who looked of ovulating age and pass us roses. I have been in many many congregations and they all suffer great confusion on where to draw the line between mothers and children. Some ladies were very old but had no children. Some ladies were old but wanted no children. Some ladies didn’t even like children. Some ladies didn’t want children but had them, and some children also had children or at least were the age that they physically could produce a child. The latter usually defined the cutoff point. We young women would usually accept a rose or chocolate bar with a slight grimace and whisper to our neighbors about how inappropriate this seemed and quickly pass our rose to mom or hastily consume the chocolate on the spot. Hiding the evidence that we too had periods.
(a story of my childhood)
‘Children, pick an instrument!’ my teacher chirped. She strutted across the stage to an assortment of gleaming items.
The children rushed the stage. The string section was gone in a flash. I slid up to the corner of the stage where I spotted a clarinet gently reposing. Out of place in the bulky brass section. It’s mysterious black shine beckoned me. I turned to see most of the other instruments gone. There was the perplexing French horn. The tuba. A brassy odor coming from one or the other. Chris Tate charmed away the oboe with his elegant long fingers. I swooped on the French horn.
In the evening, my family ate dinner on the back porch. All nine children somehow squeezed together on a long picnic table. The back porch was built on the top of a long green sloping hill ending at a tree-lined lake. The nanny served our macaroni and chopped hot dogs. As we children ate, we lightly disparaged neighbor Heather. Heather lived across the lake. We played with Heather only when all other friends were unavailable. My big brother Bill got a glint in his eye, and abruptly asked, “What do you guys think? Maybe Heather sits by her window all day listening to us having fun? Hi Heather!” Billy cawed mockingly at the lake. We were mortified when we heard a plaintiff “Hiiiiiiii!” drift eerily back. Heather’s voice was crystal clear.
Heather wasn’t the only one we could hear. One of our family’s keenest enjoyments was listening to the liquid yet raspy notes that flowed across the lake to our home in the early evenings. A neighbor on the lake, so I heard say, was a member of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He enjoyed practicing his French horn lakeside. We enjoyed his music as a calming distraction from the hustle-bustle of dinner. Reader, do you think it uncanny that I chose that instrument as my companion?
My family had welcomed my new horn with the respect due a visiting dignitary. In fact this was not true, and when I called to check the facts with my mother, she made a sing-song noise to indicate that she did not believe the horn had visited at all. I took it to bed with me. I delighted in making squeaky spitty toots on my newfound friend. Days of frozen manicotti and cordon bleu were finally broken by more sound from across the lake. The brown bats were making their jagged dances through the air. Then in the green light of evening, the sound of my neighbor’s French horn glided up the hill to us squabbling children.
How can I describe the sound? I still have not forgotten it. It was a powerful yet melancholy. There was an economy of notes that pulled at my nine year old heartstrings. When its player had me in his palm and I had to squint and inhale sharply, the music would suddenly and mercifully climb like the branches of the white birch trees surrounding the lake. The notes grew thinner and more elegant, finally faith restoring, delicate but long. I always imagined a lone bugler standing over a still battle-field. His tale was a moral and I strived to grasp the lesson.
This was my moment to take the baton! I excitedly ran to my room and snatched my new horn. I ran down to the lake and seated myself on a circle of stones, closing my eyes.
I drew a deep breath and forced the air through the curling brass tubes. A hearty bellow issued forth. I played three long cracking notes as loud as I could, then stopped to listen for my partner’s answer. I imagined his joy the exuberance of his notes, no more the lone bugler! Silence. Silence! I waited for many minutes. Finally disappointed I climbed back up our hill to the porch. I sadly put my instrument away, more than a little confused. My family did not witness the scene. But we never heard our neighbor’s horn again.
I lost interest in the instrument. My purpose in selecting it had vanished. My private music teacher noticed I did not practice or learn new notes. Within two weeks he suggested I drop the instrument.
But I still remember the whole feeling of sitting lakeside, pursing my lips and pressing them into the round brassy mouthpiece. My heart was filled and I prepared for the performance of my life.