I was thinking this morning about when I first got “the curse,” as my family so fondly named it, and what a huge, huge relief that was to me, and that got me thinking about my Great Aunt Milly. To understand why the two are permanently mixed in my head, you need to know my family history. When we would drive to Pennsylvania to see my grandmother, we would go visit Aunt Milly, my grandmother’s sister. Aunt Milly lived in a nursing home. She was a tiny woman, with a birdlike laugh, who sometimes wore her teeth, sometimes not, depending on her mood. She loved postcards, which my father sent her from every place we visited during our travels with the Army. She also liked to play cards with other nursing home inhabitants, although she often lost patience with her fellow card players. Aunt Milly had the personality of an eleven-year-old girl: joyful, mischievous, and a little moody when things didn’t go her way.
When we would visit, Milly would whisper things to my father like, “These people act so old sometimes.” It always seemed to me like she didn’t really belong there in the home and would love to run away with us. When I asked my mother why Milly had to live there and what she had wrong with her, my mother answered, “Milly never got her period.” The story was that, when it came time for Milly to go through puberty, it just didn’t happen, so Milly “got stuck” and never grew up.
Now, put yourself in my place. I first heard this story when I was about seven or eight, the youngest of four girls. My sisters all seemed totally normal, living their charmed lives, as older sisters always do in the eyes of younger sisters, so I knew, in my heart of hearts, that they would never get stuck, not one of them! As for myself, that was a different story. I worried about Milly—and her blood relationship to me—from then on, on a fairly regular basis. I worried about her so much that I didn’t even have the nerve to ask my father, a doctor, if Milly’s disease was something that I might be able to inherit. I worried about her so much that when we watched the filmstrip in the school gym called “Now that You’re a Woman,” the one with scientific drawings of ovaries and uterus’ and blood cells but also with a glamorous blond lady happily smiling through her womanhood, I felt sick to my stomach. I looked at all the girls around me, in my fifth grade class, and thought, “All of them will go happily and smoothly along, living normal lives, filled with periods and bikinis and husbands and children, while I’m stuck somewhere in a nursing home, playing Canasta.” I’m not sure how bikinis got in the mix, but you get my drift!
I have to say this: my body gave my brain a run for its money, since it took me a while to actually “cross the threshold.” But I am happy to say that I did cross it and went on, eventually, never smoothly, to a life with my own husband and children–but no bikinis.
And, on the day that it happened, I don’t think there has ever been a more relieved teenager in the world. I wasn’t even celebrating getting my period that day. I was celebrating not having to live out my days, removed from my family, taking my teeth in and out and looking at postcards.
I’m sure this was not a normal experience of puberty, even in my day and age and even in my slightly abnormal family. But now, looking back, I can’t help but wish I’d opened up my mouth and asked a few more questions. All that’s left for me to do now is to apologize to Milly, in heaven, for turning her into my childhood bugaboo instead of appreciating her for who she was: a person who was slightly mentally impaired and, on top of that, had something like Cushing’s disease, but who, more than anything else was a sweet, childlike and happy spirit, who never asked for my nonsense and certainly didn’t deserve it.
P.S. I have only one picture of Milly, taken when she was a little girl, but it is framed and too old and faint to scan.