Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Braided              

by Gail Thomas


When he called her high-strung, I imagined a horse
rearing up white-eyed, not the woman who dusted
down walls every week and sprawled on the floor
braiding strips of wool into a rug.

When I answered the pay phone in the hall, he
stumbled with the news -- break-down. I saw
thin wires snapping, her still body in a white
room. Because you moved away. When I moved

farther, she offered the rug and wrote a letter,
because you were a cold child. Now I change
her diaper, trim chin hair, bring a cactus with
one yellow flower. She calls me angel, my angel.


* * * * *

“Braided” is from the author’s collection Waving Back (Turning Point, 2015).

Gail Thomas,
http://www.gailthomaspoet.com/, has published four books of poetry, Odd Mercy (Headmistress Press, 2016), Waving Back (Turning Point, 2015), No Simple Wilderness: An Elegy for Swift River Valley (Haley’s, 2001) and Finding the Bear (Perugia Press, 1997).

Waving Back was named a Must Read for 2016 by the Massachusetts Center for the Book and Honorable Mention in the New England Book Festival.  Odd Mercy won the Charlotte Mew Prize of Headmistress Press and its “Little Mommy Sonnets” won Honorable Mention in the Tom Howard/ Margaret Prize for Traditional Verse.

Thomas’s work has appeared in many journals and anthologies including The Beloit Poetry Journal, Calyx, The North American Review, Hanging Loose, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. Individual poems have won national prizes and Thomas was awarded residencies at The McDowell Colony and Ucross.

Her book, No Simple Wilderness, about the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir in the 1930’s has been taught in college writing and interdisciplinary courses. As one of the original teaching artists for the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Elder Arts Initiative, Thomas led workshops and collaborated with dancers, musicians and storytellers in schools, nursing homes, hospitals and libraries across the state.

She speaks at conferences and poetry festivals, reads her work widely in community and academic settings, and lives in Northampton, MA. 

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

All Hallows


by Gail Thomas


I feared grandmother’s faded corset
draped over the shower bar, laces
dangling like naked pink worms.
And the way my gentle father
morphed to monster when faced       
with a leaky faucet or faulty lock.

On Halloween I did not want to be
a princess, though rescue seemed exciting
in an unnamed sexual way. I asked for
matador, like the poster in our rec room
of a sinuous man, twirling his red cape
before the dark beast.

My mother sewed knee pants and
bolero jacket trimmed with gold braid,
black hat, cumberbund and flaring
scarlet cape, complicit in this break
with custom, except
the suit was pink, pink, pink.

No one warns little ghosts about
the price of desire, the body’s betrayals,
and oh, the masks of want.


* * * * *

“All Hallows” is from the author’s collection Waving Back (Turning Point, 2015).

Gail Thomas,
http://www.gailthomaspoet.com/, has published four books of poetry, Odd Mercy (Headmistress Press, 2016), Waving Back (Turning Point, 2015), No Simple Wilderness: An Elegy for Swift River Valley (Haley’s, 2001) and Finding the Bear (Perugia Press, 1997).

Waving Back was named a Must Read for 2016 by the Massachusetts Center for the Book and Honorable Mention in the New England Book Festival.  Odd Mercy won the Charlotte Mew Prize of Headmistress Press and its “Little Mommy Sonnets” won Honorable Mention in the Tom Howard/ Margaret Prize for Traditional Verse.

Thomas’s work has appeared in many journals and anthologies including The Beloit Poetry Journal, Calyx, The North American Review, Hanging Loose, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. Individual poems have won national prizes and Thomas was awarded residencies at The McDowell Colony and Ucross.
Her book, No Simple Wilderness, about the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir in the 1930’s has been taught in college writing and interdisciplinary courses. As one of the original teaching artists for the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Elder Arts Initiative, Thomas led workshops and collaborated with dancers, musicians and storytellers in schools, nursing homes, hospitals and libraries across the state.


She speaks at conferences and poetry festivals, reads her work widely in community and academic settings, and lives in Northampton, MA. 

Monday, 11 December 2017

Auschwitz-Birkenau               

by Nanette Rayman


Taste the color of red, a noxious crimson gas the way
you would smell the street after a fierce acid rain. Promise
to tell the extraneous pink dahlias to bless
my people. Our song has always been
blue and white. Press your animal thumbs
to your ashen foreheads, press hard
into your heartless green envy of our survival
beauty. If you cannot get past your gray heritage, try
again slowly. Think of a child stacking block upon block.

After each block, pray for your own souls. The marrow
of my people endures. So insistent is the rain,
we endure and this memorial only makes us know
you are more shameful. We rise like a great tribe
of birds—free. We can soar as high as Ein Sof. The sun
rises alongside the countryside. We rise like a united
fist. We are the birds. Ziporim.
Baruch HaShem.            

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Bless Him -------

by Nanette Rayman


He tried real hard to take his own life.
All the people on Wall Street acted
as if wind blew them past. They didn’t even bless him.      
No one stopped to help him. I put my arm around him       
and called an ambulance. I blessed him.             
He asked me to ride with him to St. Vincent’s Hospital.
He was younger than me by a lot. With no self-
pity, just seams of jangling sadness, he said: My baby left me. I love her
so. I need her. Wind blows up and down the stairs of The Stock Market.
Administrative assistants pull at their pencil skirts and lean like lamp posts.
He asks me to go for coffee forgetting he’s taken too many pills.
To get swallowed up by this sweet sick man I would descend like
a spastic bird. To descend quickly into a subway station I would
have to leave him among the financial ruins, among the suits
and stone and browning bananas not sold today on fruit stands.
I waited with him ‘til the paramedics came. I went with him
to St. Vincent’s Hospital and watched the charcoal shoved
down his throat. Nurses were angry at him. They did not bless him.
Not everyone who falls is caught. Not everyone is saved.

It never stops now, the stars, the what-happened
which has no ground to stand on—Baruch HaShem,
I’m saving myself for someone now,
falling off my pumps on Wall Street.
I thought I saw him walking toward me today.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Most Interesting Woman in the World 
By Tricia Lunt


A few years ago, I emailed Dos Equis. I had an idea to expand their marketing strategy and customer base. Why not introduce The Most Interesting Woman in the World?
I got a polite form email. Thanks, but no thanks.
I wasn’t surprised.
This exchange with Dos Equis somehow came up in conversation at a barbeque on Labor Day weekend, even though no Dos Equis products were in sight.  
My friend Nate asked, somewhat incredulously, “But what would that look like?”
Here I should point out that he wasn’t talking about appearances. He was suggesting that it would be seemingly more difficult to find a woman who could successfully embody the abstract concepts associated with “being interesting.”
I think it would be easy. Just envision the same characteristics attributed to The Most Interesting Man in the World present in a woman.
He’s charming; she’s charming.
He’s adventurous; she’s adventurous.
He’s charismatic; she’s charismatic.
He’s athletic; she’s athletic.
He’s creative; she’s creative.
What’s so difficult?
Then, of course, Nate mentioned something about whether or not she would or should be a portrayed as a mom.
Is The Most Interesting Man in the World a dad?
Do we know?
Do we care?
Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t.
Maybe the most relevant thing is that it doesn’t appear to be relevant.
This exchange reminded me of George R. R. Martin’s famous remark with regard to his talent for creating compelling female characters.
His reply, “You know, I've always considered women to be people.”
Considering women primarily as people: sadly, an idea uncommon enough to be considered a remarkable insight.
I recall a previous conversation with Mike, who also happened to be at the Labor Day BBQ. (At this point I should admit that it is awfully nice to have so many interesting and thought-provoking—though clearly vexing—conversations).
My friend Mike and I were talking about sex. You could wonder why, but I believe I read somewhere that the average human thinks about sex several times a minute. Anecdotal evidence seems to support this estimate.
In any case, we were talking about sex: how great it is, and how healthy. Any respectable doctor, therapist, or councilor will tell you an active sex life is a very good thing indeed.
At some point during the conversation, I said I enjoyed how powerful sex made me feel, eliciting a blank stare from Mike.
Once again, I confused a man.
“You feel powerful?” Mike asked.                           
“Yes,” I said, “sex makes me feel powerful.”
“Doesn’t sex make you feel powerful?” I asked.
“Yes, I feel powerful, I just didn’t think that women would feel that way,” he replied.
Recently, a genetic test revealed that the mummified remains of an ancient Viking were those of a woman. Since the discovery in the 19th century, it had been assumed that the remains were male due to the presence of paraphernalia fit for a heroic warrior.
I encounter so much failure of imagination.
Imagine a woman as interesting.
Imagine a woman as powerful.
Imagine a woman as warrior.
Imagine a woman as a fully human, capable of anything.


Friday, 8 December 2017

FOUNDATION GARMENTS

By Mary J. Breen

When I was a child in the ’50s, one of our favourite card games was Old Maid, the one in which the person with the lone unmatchable card—The Old Maid—is the loser. By age eight, I’d figured out that nobody in real life wanted to be an Old Maid either: no one wanted to be the one left “on the shelf,” unloved and all alone. I’d also picked up the idea that we girls had been automatically enrolled in a contest to snare a man as soon as possible so we would not end up ... an Old Maid.

The assumption that every girl wanted to marry was so commonplace that never did I hear anyone suggest that a woman might have had the good sense not to marry. Instead I learned early that the blame lay entirely with these single women themselves for being unable to attract even the most desperate of men. No one pointed out the useful fact that there were a considerable number of unmarried women in the parish and in our schools not because they were so unlovable, but because they’d come of age after the First World War when the pool of eligible young men had been decimated in the muds of Belgium and France. Even the facts of my mother’s life—not marrying until she was 35 after being an accomplished teacher, music supervisor, and leader of her own popular dance band—didn’t change my opinion that a career was in some way second-rate to marriage. Which is why, when I started paying more attention to my mother’s friends who came to visit every year, I saw them deficient because they hadn’t caught themselves a man.

These friends of my mother’s from Toronto were between 45 and 55; I never knew theirs or my mother’s ages because “a lady doesn’t tell her age.” She’d known some of these women since her childhood when her family had lived above their grocery store at Queen and Bathurst in Toronto, and some from later years when the family moved uptown in terms of status and latitude. There the family home was a solid brick three-story ruled over by her father, a stalwart shopkeeper, pillar of the parish, and friend of the Bishop. My mother moved up in class, but not so her friends. These women left school for unrewarding jobs and minimal pay when they were still girls, and they stayed at jobs like these for as many as fifty years to keep roofs over their own and their families’ heads. One of them lived in one of those almost-obsolete places called a boarding house, and the others lived with members of their families: two sisters together; a sister, brother, and mother; an aunt and her niece.

These women loved to visit us in our Mennonite-Lutheran Ontario village, and my mother loved them to come. Her favourite, and my least favourite, was one I’ll call “Madelaine.” She had been the drummer in my mother’s band, a role I found impossible to imagine for someone with such a stern formal manner. I realize now that Madelaine was always cranky because she was always hungry. Although she wasn’t heavy, her doctor had threatened her with a second heart attack if she didn’t lose weight, and since she was the only bread-winner for an invalid brother and an aging mother, she went through every day on black coffee, cigarettes, and one bran muffin. She eventually became the private secretary of a bank manager, a very nice married man whom she was quietly and sadly in love with most of her adult life. Even though I was young, I sensed how she revelled in the chance to talk about him in ways she could never do at work or at home.

And then there was “Lil” who wore too much jewellery, too much makeup, and too much perfume. She worked at Borden’s Dairy. She and her sister “Anastasia” always visited together until Anastasia died of a stroke while sitting in a car at a church picnic. She had been a corset fitter at Eaton’s—a job the women seemed to feel gave her considerable status because of her intimate relationship with the privileged.
      
Then there was “Glad” who worked as a clerk in a motor licensing office, a job she seemed happy not to talk about. She sometimes came with her aging aunt. Glad was a solidly-built woman with a deep voice, short hair, and, unlike the others, no jewellery or makeup. I knew Glad was the kindest of them all, but I gave her a wide berth. When I was about six, I’d followed her to her bedroom where I watched her limp over to the bed, flop down, and start to take off her stockings. Suddenly, right in front of my eyes, the lower half of her leg came off in her hands. She just casually put it to one side where it stood erect in its black shoe until it began wobbling before crashing to the floor. When I caught a glimpse of raw flesh under the edge of her skirt, I turned and ran shrieking for my mother to tell her Glad’s leg had come off. My mother eventually calmed me down by explaining why some people needed wooden legs, but the whole thing very much unnerved me. Ever after, through the years until her death many years later, Glad brought up her blunder, apologising again and again for her foolishness while I tried not to remember the horrible red thing that her friends all blithely referred to as her “stump.”

***
All of these friends remained maiden ladies throughout their lives, all except, for a while, Lil. When I was about ten, she sent out the shocking news that she had married a “non-Catholic” widower named “Lloyd,” a deplorable decision, her friends said, because it might weaken her faith, and an inexplicable decision since Lil was forever pointing out the evils of “Orangemen,” the name she gave anyone not a Catholic.

The married Lil stopped visiting us, and my mother and I only visited her and Lloyd twice. Twice was enough. Lil’s previously jolly self had vanished. Lloyd greeted us from the couch, drink in hand, wearing only old trousers and an older undershirt, and yelling orders at Lil. Lloyd had been in the First War, and he had brought home a piece of the Kaiser’s shrapnel embedded high up in his leg. He was determined to show me the painful spot, but every time he tried to pull down his pants, my mother would interrupt in her most there’ll-be-none-of-that-kind-of-thing manner which I found almost as embarrassing as what Lloyd was trying to do. The whole thing was very distressing to Lil, as was her whole marriage. A couple months later, Lloyd had a stroke, and for his few remaining years, he was unable to say anything intelligible except for clearly articulated, profane curses that further mortified Lil and further infuriated my mother. He would shout long and garbled demands at Lil punctuated by curse words, and she would shout back trying to guess what he wanted, “A glass of water, Lloyd? You want a glass of water? The bathroom, Lloyd? Do you want to go to the bathroom?”

After he died, Lil started visiting us again. In my hearing, Lloyd was never mentioned again.
***
Except for Glad, the others brought with them something of what I thought of as big-city style. I knew it was years behind the style of the smart women I saw in magazines and movies, but it was years ahead of most of the other women in that dour town who wore mostly dark, sombre clothes, and a good century ahead of the Old Order Mennonite women who still wore black bonnets and long black dresses.

What my mother’s friends couldn’t manage because of their limited budgets they made up for in flamboyance. They stood out from the crowd, and this made my parents stand a few feet apart from them on the church steps. Like my mother’s, their basic dresses were always in the same design. Think of Edith Bunker—a fitted top and a looser skirt—dark ones for “good,” and floral, gingham, or plaid cotton ones for “house dresses.” However, the dresses were just the beginning. Their shoes were sometimes laced-up oxfords with thick raised heels, and sometimes more risqué though sedate pumps. Their stockings were sometimes sheer with seams up the back, and sometimes heavily ribbed support stockings because of their varicose veins. They wore sticky red lipstick, perfect circles of vivid rouge on each cheek, and clouds of heavy perfume, Tabu and Casaque and a terrible Woolworth’s kind called Ben Hur. Their hair was dyed (sometimes jet black, sometimes orange, sometimes pale blue), and their hats looked like squashed upside-down saucers with veils. Each one had a full-length fur coat that they spoke about as if it was a pet: “My seal is so dependable,” or “I wouldn’t go anywhere without my muskrat.”       

And then there was their jewellery—clumpy broaches, earrings, and necklaces of bright plastic or aurora borealis rhinestones. All of them, even Glad, wore rings on every available finger—the yellow gold and platinum, plain and ornate, wedding rings of their mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters. I don’t know if they wanted to trick the casual observer into thinking they had husbands, but none of them went so far as to wear someone else’s plain band on the ring finger of their left hand.

My father would meet them at the train station. As soon as they arrived at our house, they’d hug and kiss us, and then flop down on the couch while my mother made them a rye and ginger ale, or a gin and Lime Ricky. After their drink, they’d retreat to the bedroom to change. I’d follow them as they always brought me a present even though I knew it would be something sensible and boring—nylon panties for every day of the week—Monday/Lundi, Tuesday/Mardi, or a prayer book and rosary, or, from Lil, stupid, tiny, grinning, Bakelite heads of Elsie The Borden Cow. The worst present was six already-tarnishing spoons in a purple flannel storage bed for my Hope Chest. I didn’t know what a Hope Chest was and I had no interest in stockpiling cutlery. My father also showed no interest in them as he’d always hoped I’d become a nun, but my mother demanded that I show proper gratitude; she probably understood the sacrifice Lil had made to buy these for her friend’s child.

As I examined that year’s gift, they’d hang up their brown, black, or navy crimpoline dresses, and start their transformation. They began by “taking off their faces,” removing their precise arching eyebrows, rouge, and lipstick using gobs of cold cream like clowns after the show. A couple of them also took off their hair and parked nests of puffy curls often the colour of metal pot scrubbers on the bedpost. What was left were semi-bald heads sprouting little grey tufts of hair.

Then their corsets often came off. Except for Madelaine, these women and my mother were all decidedly chubby, and, in the fashion of the time, they all wore armour-like corsets they referred to politely as “foundation garments.” These flesh-coloured necessities were like formidable bathing suits, with an inner stomach-squashing panel and an outer one, all done up with rows and rows of tiny hooks. They were very snug, so tight that they made their breasts spill out over the top producing dramatic décolletés above their hard, streamlined, sausage-like bodies. The combination of industrial strength elastic, thick layers of fabric, and a series of long stays (plastic, no longer whalebone) made the corsets stiff enough so they could be stood in the corner of the room, as tall as a small child.

Unhooking their corsets was accompanied by a lot of “ahhing” with the relief of being set free. Without corsets, their bodies would collapse, their breasts pendulous, their waistlines gone, and their stomachs much nearer the ground. Without corsets, they were no longer ladies of the city, but girlfriends together. They’d put on house dresses, roll down their stockings to their knitted or brown felt slippers, and head back to the living room to, as they said, “have a gab.”

While they were with us, they never went outside to shop or to go for walks on the country lanes just minutes from our house. From Saturday noon until Sunday evening, apart from the trip to Sunday Mass, they just talked and smoked and laughed until they wept. Every hour or so, they debated whether or not they dared have another cup of tea and another piece of my mother’s pie. Or another butter tart. Or both. These deliberations would last a minute or two until finally someone would say, “What the hell!” and dive in. This led to endless talk about the merits of The Grapefruit Diet or The Doctors’ Cabbage Soup Diet. Their favourite diet technique was eating special appetite-suppressing toffees with the unfortunate name of AYDS. There was no sign the candies had any effect besides making them feel eligible for another piece of pie.

I was always amazed at how casual they were with my mother, calling her not just “Claudia” but “doll” and “kid” and “hon” and “Claude” even. In my hearing, absolutely no one besides my father and her brother called her Claudia. With her white gloves and her imperious manner, she was “Mrs. Breen” to everyone else. I called her Mummy and I remember being terrified I might make the mistake one day of saying the word “Claudia” out loud. But these women didn’t seem afraid of her in any way. They teased her, and told stories of silly-crazy things they’d all done years before, and she laughed as much as they did. I loved it when she was happy like this, as the happier she was, the easier she was on me.

They also loved to tell jokes, though never risqué ones. “Tell Claudia the one about the mouse and the elephant,” would send them into spasms before they’d even heard it again. And they told stories about their mutual friends: so-and-so’s husband who died of a heart attack when he got a 29 hand in cribbage; someone who was sick and someone else who was dying, and always stories of beastly men: The One That Did Her Wrong and The One That Got Away. They shook their heads and tsk-tsked, but these stories seemed not as much surprises as confirmations of what they all knew to be forever true.

”Little pitchers have big ears” they’d say when they knew I was listening, but I soon figured out what they were talking about. I understood that someone had been found with her head in the oven because of a man, and someone else had never left home again after some man had “left her at the altar.” After these tales, they’d turn to me and tell me to pray for A Good Man—a good man like my father. Perhaps, even then, they were still hoping someday their princes would come.
***
My mother knew her friends were déclassé, but she was very loyal to them. My father was not so impressed. After they had gone, he’d point out how much he didn’t like to see a woman smoking, not to mention their garish makeup and red nail polish—“as if they’d dipped their hands in blood.” He also didn’t like their “coarse” language, their saying damn and hell instead of darn and heck, though I’m sure he approved of their delicacy in saying things like needing the little girls’ room. He also probably thought these women upset the natural order with their nobody-tells-me-what-to-do attitude. These were women not afraid to point out the unfairness of things in a man’s world.

Of course my father’s wife was uppity-er than any of them. Here was a woman who when she saw that a major Toronto street was cordoned off for a parade just drove around the barricades and onto the street. Before I could point out that we were going to be in Big Trouble—not that she would have listened anyway—she was waving at the cheering crowds lining the sidewalks as we headed undeterred on our way downtown. My mother took orders from no one—police or grocer, priest or husband. Even so, my father never appeared threatened by her strong will, probably because they didn’t disagree about much, and because, I am sure, she was, nearly always, dignified. And corseted. Always; even—she was proud to report—the whole time she was pregnant with me. I think what really bothered my father about our visitors was their taking off their corsets in the middle of the day, a vivid loosening of standards, an abandonment of fundamentals. He expected much of women on whose frail shoulders, he would have said, the fate of society rested. Women, he thought, had the grave responsibility to be respectable, ladylike, and contained, not like these friends of my mother who acted, in this way, as if their bodies were their own.
***
On Sunday evenings the women would rearm themselves with their foundation garments and stockings, their good dresses, hats, fur coats, and makeup, and set off back to their lives in the city, waving wildly and blowing kisses as they went. By the time I was an arrogant teenager, I felt sorry for them as I thought they were returning to lives of quiet, lonely desperation. Pity also let me distance myself from any hint that their lives could someday be my destiny too. Now all these years later, I’m not at all sure these women were pitiable. Perhaps they never expected much in the way of comfort or wealth, beauty or companionship. Maybe their dreams were as modest as the Irish nuns had told them dreams must be, warning them that they must accept that God in His Infinite Wisdom knew what He was doing, and reminding them of the essential unworthiness of us all. Or perhaps their lives brought them more than they’d ever dreamed of. Or perhaps at middle age, they’d realized that it was time to leave their dreams by the roadside for the next generation of wistful women to pick up and hold, for a time, close to their own lonely hearts.
  
* * * * *

A similar version of "Foundation Garments" was published in The Toast, Oct 2013
                             

Mary J. Breen is the author of two books about women's health. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines including Brick, The Christian Science Monitor, Boston Literary MagazineThe National Post, and JAMA Cardiology. She was a regular contributor to The Toast. She lives in Peterborough Ontario Canada where, among other things, she teaches writing.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

SEX EDUCATION IN THE 1950s

by Mary J. Breen


Once upon a time long ago in my small Ontario town, menstrual pads were called sanitary napkins, and they came in boxes wrapped in plain brown paper lest any man see them and drop dead from embarrassment. These pads were about an inch thick—bulky, awkward things that were held in place with little twisty belts or safety pins. To be extra safe, some women even wore special rubber-lined underpants. This was long before the wonders of stick-on ultra-thin pads with wings. When revolutionary things called tampons arrived on the drugstore shelf, I set about trying to convince my mother of their superiority based on the fact that one could hide a whole month’s-worth in a purse, but nothing I said convinced her to let me buy them. Tampons, she said—whispered actually, barely containing her disgust—were only for married women. Perhaps, like the Archbishop of Dublin who banned them in Ireland around this time, she thought tampons had the potential to be sexually stimulating. Someone should have told these people that sometimes a tampon is just a tampon.

But I had no data to argue with. Reliable sex information was nowhere to be found. Parents told their kids exactly nothing about the birds and the bees. In our house, all references to sex, direct or tangential, were verboten, even someone’s coming blessed event—except of course for the celebrated lead-up to the anniversary of the birth of the Christ Child.

I became a little obsessed with finding out where babies came from. My Baltimore Catechism said simply that God made me, and the nuns said that God (the Holy Ghost actually) had made the baby Jesus, so from this I figured God had a magic wand that he’d wave over a baby’s crib, and poof, next morning, there would be a baby swaddled in a pink or blue blanket waiting to be loved.

Word on the street, however, had it that that there was more to it. They said parents did something together to produce a baby, something shameful from the way everyone snickered about it. No one knew precisely what this involved, but I was beginning to grasp that a father did something to a mother, and perhaps at a hospital, since that’s where babies were born. This led to my next theory which was that men, not God, were the ones possessed of magic wands. Any man I’ve mentioned this to has been quick to agree.

By the time I was ten or eleven, I was starting to fear that my curiosity about babies was one of those “impure thoughts” mentioned as grievous sins against the 6th and 9th Commandments. I studied that section of the Examination of Conscience Before Confession, but I learned nothing there about the origin of babies; just warnings about not committing adultery, coveting my neighbour’s wife, or dancing in a lewd or suggestive manner.

When I was fourteen, my middle-aged parents did, however, order me a good Catholic book about sex for teens. It too arrived in a plain brown wrapper. I think it was called Chastity and Purity for Catholic Youth. I had noticed a mysterious package arrive in the mail, so when they were out playing bridge I went snooping and found it. I read it cover to cover, again and again. When they mustered the courage to give it to me two years later, I already knew it was useless. It wasn’t about sex; it was about sin: “John slid down the banister and felt pleasure. He went up and did it again. Did he sin?” Answer: Yup. (Huh?) “Anne rode her bicycle and felt pleasure. She kept on riding. Did she sin?” Answer: She sure did.

Our high school Health and Phys Ed classes told us next-to-nothing, although Biology class did teach us the reproductive habits of amoebae and the common earthworm. Our Phys Ed teacher simply warned us not to fall prey to boys or we would end up like those shameless girls who got into trouble and had to go to an aunt. As for menstruation, it was never called by its proper name; in fact, adults, including our mothers, never spoke of it at all if they could help it. This teacher went so far as to say our time of the month (we called it a visit from our little friend) was no excuse to get out of gym, and if we wanted to know more, we simply needed to read the booklets she’d got for us from the menstrual pad manufacturers. One was That Wonderful Thing That Happens Every Month. Its message was that with the right protection we could wear the gorgeous gowns pictured throughout the booklet without staining them, not that they used that word. In fact, precise words like puberty, blood, lining, flow, vagina, uterus, ovaries, eggs, cramps, bloating, breasts, headaches, and mood swings were all beyond the pale. To explain this new “wonderful thing that happens every month” without mentioning a single body part, they found a handy metaphor: we were pupae, undergoing metamorphosis. I remember the especially helpful drawing of a huge butterfly hovering above a smiling, smart-looking girl as she sipped a drink at a lunch counter.

And so, still and again, I was no further ahead.


* * * * *

"Sex Education in the 1950s" was first published in The Toast (2013).

Mary J. Breen is the author of two books about women's health. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines including Brick, The Christian Science Monitor, Boston Literary Magazine, The National Post, and JAMA Cardiology. She was a regular contributor to The Toast. She lives in Peterborough Ontario Canada where, among other things, she teaches writing.