The following is an excerpt from “Our Red Book: Intimate Histories of Periods, Growing & Changing,” a collection of essays gathered by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff.
This book will begin with a memory I received when I was a child.
I was 12 and shy. I had recently gotten my first period while on vacation visiting my widowed grandfather. Despite my repeated calls home, no one in my family was picking up the phone. I cried, helplessly, in my grandfather’s bathroom, holding an assortment of large tampons that must have been left behind by his deceased second wife.
Eventually, my grandfather drove me to a pharmacy, where he dropped me off in the parking lot and said, “Go inside and figure it out.”
A few weeks later, at a family Passover seder in Queens, I was sitting at the kids’ table, like every other year of my life beforehand. Clinking her glass, my mom announced to my extended family that I had “become a woman.”
Looking back on it, I understand this moment and the day of my first period as my first of many encounters with shame. Though I also know that memory is slippery and that this is an attempt now, at age 30, to make sense of a heat and weight I felt in my body then, for which I did not have words.
My tante Nina, my great-aunt, must have recognized something in me. Later that night, in her bedroom, which smelled like cat litter and everyone’s winter coats piled onto the bed, she told me a story.
I was 13. It was 1940. We were fleeing Poland and the deportation of the Jews. The atrocities committed by the Germans were getting worse. Ghettos were being formed. My uncles in Belgium and France went through enormous troubles to obtain visas and passage for us to get out. To reach Belgium, we had to pass through Germany. My story takes place on the train arriving from Poland at the German border crossing. The train stopped, and we were told to get completely undressed for the customs guards to search us.
The guards were mostly searching for hidden jewelry, and they looked in the most private places. It was horrible. I had hidden my yellow Star of David in my shoe, but it was discovered. In my fright, I completely lost it and peed in my pants. But when I looked down, what I saw was actually a stream of red. I raced into the compartment, and my mother saw what was happening. She rushed to the toilets at the end of the train and grabbed lots of rolls of toilet paper, one of which she shoved into my underwear. She was somehow able to do this so discreetly that my two sisters and brother never knew about this. She whispered to me that now I was going to be a big girl on whom she was going to have to depend, that this would happen every month. But most important, she told me, in Belgium and France, where we were heading, they had excellent napkins, much better than in Poland.
My great-aunt was tiny, with a large beak of a nose. She spoke with a thick French accent, and her voice was extremely nasal.
Up until that point, our conversations had pertained mostly to making jewelry out of Sculpey and how much we both loved frozen waffles.
I knew she had lived through something. I knew she had fled “the war.” But even words like survive and Holocaust felt abstract to me, as a child who had lived through nothing. For the first time, I saw my tante Nina as someone who had once been my age.
You lived through that?
My mother and my aunts had never heard this story, either.
“So your period spared you from being examined by the officer?” my mother asked.
“Oui,” my tante Nina said. The officer had been too disgusted to continue.
“Why have you never shared this story avec nous?” my mom asked. “This story about your period saving your life.”
“Parce que ce n’est pas quelque chose à discuter.”
Because it’s not a subject we talk about.
My mom was shocked.
And yet, I had never heard my mother’s first period story, either. No one, of any generation, it seemed, had shared anything in any direction.
It was only after my great-aunt shared her story that my other family members started talking.