Updated: Jun 26, 2021
Sometimes, moments from incongruent eras of your life arise and collide, and make you snort a beverage right out of your nose. This Memorial-Day morning over coffee, I heard the cicadas’ 90-decibel love-chant and could see my (dead) dog pounce the floor at the front door, back in 2004, when they last emerged. Her ‘free candy out in the grass, let’s GO!’ dance.
That memory then leaped backward a few decades, to a backyard show my young friend Mari-lynn and I staged, in suburbia outside DC. We had worked out most of the songs and dance moves, and after a failed opening weekend, added to our fence signs, “Free Candy!”
From within those happy moments, and somewhere in my chest? A hot-flash.
“Vasomotor symptoms” of some human-female thermostat, if she’s fortunate enough to survive until the end of maternal potential.
They flush your upper body with heat and sweat in seconds – whoa, watch the back of my hands bloom, wet and shiny! -- then leave your body chilled. Hot flashes come on suddenly. They don’t last all that long, and there’s nothing you can do about them. And, they are intense and they leave you stunned: What volcanic force is all this, from my own (meek and unique) corpus here? Is my nightshirt so soaked I have to get out of bed and change, or can I still fall back asleep, so dampened?
I know women who never felt even one. Others, like my older sister, can describe “that one time.” Others, some year-long excitement.
At my well-woman visit in January, I answered my doctor, “They come less often now, maybe a few times a month, but I’m still having them.” She said, “You know, Mary, some women have them the rest of their lives.” Wheeee.
And. So much and. If that’s the worst of my chronic conditions, I’ll take that deal, gladly. I’ll ignore the joint pain. The pollen and its histaminic pain. Whatever sequelae from meningitis. All that. And gladly.
Anyhoo, the flash caught me mid-memory -- “Songs & Dance show 10 cents ^also free candy!” A bit of dark-roast coffee surged into my nose. (Caffeine can be a hot-flash trigger, but you get your mitts away from mine, on any morning.)
Life in a body alive! I’ll take it. All of it.
For our backyard show, Mari-lynn and I had constructed a stage out of milk-crates. We’d hung signs on my family’s chain-link fence announcing our “Songs and Dance Show Only 10 Cents!” This was probably early August, before we started 2nd- (or 3rd-?) grade.
Our kind neighbor, Mrs. B., had supported the idea. She always stood ready to serve us pretzels and ginger-ale, whenever we got tired of playing outside. She knew our own mothers didn’t want us inside until the streetlights came on, much later. Mari-lynn would say, “let’s go visit Mrs. B.” when it got too hot.
Always the same refreshment: thin, stick-pretzels with ginger-ale. (Comforting, in its very predictability.) On a dog-day afternoon, the three of us would sit at Mrs. B.’s lace-covered dining-room table, set with cloth napkins. We’d talk about our day. Mrs. B. asked us sophisticated questions, as if thoughtful notions might live in our young heads, waiting for someone to ask about them.
We told her our best idea to make money. “Money to buy candy,” Mari-lynn added.
We would put on a show! Outside in the backyard. The two of us would sing well-known songs and dance and perform comical skits, and everyone in the neighborhood would pay us to watch, and feel entertained. We knew most of the songs we would sing, already. Classics like “8 Days a Week” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”
(I did not suggest out loud, “The Wind Cries Mary,” as a Mari-lynn and Mary Fran/Muffin. The sounds that Jimi made, just there and then (on the radio)! Not just with his guitar but his many ways of saying our name. That song rang straight through all my kid molecules and left them rearranged inside. I thought about how that one man loved a certain Mary that way, and only wanted to hear him sing it, whisper it, scream it. That one Jimi, and his Mary. Just felt so private, so dimensional, so physiological. Even now, I struggle to find words for that name, as he felt it.)
I did suggest to Mari-lynn, “Windy” (Who’s peeking out from under a stairway …) and she was fine with that. One of us wasn’t sure (but I was) about “Love is Blue.” (“It’s … foreign.” “Exactly,” I said.) Still a few details to iron out.
Mrs. B. thought our show sounded delightful. She urged us to re-consider candy as our goal, for the sake of our growing teeth. (Our teeth had already started to fall out. We didn’t see a problem.) The B.s’ house was the only one in our neighborhood without children. Mari-lynn’s mother, Mrs. H., told us “they’re trying to adopt.” We understood, if vaguely.
That first, fence-advertised Saturday morning on our milk crates, we waited for our audience to arrive.
No one came. Not one soul. Even Mrs. B.’s car had vanished from her driveway that morning.
I remember stepping inside our house and luring out my younger sister Pauline and her friend Carol-Ann. Of a summer day, they loved to kneel in the grass and French-kiss our next-door-neighbor’s basset-hound, through the chain-link fence. I used this as a ploy. When they realized the hound “must’ve gone inside,” they lingered long enough to hear us sing “Windy,” with our choreographed exhales, like we were, you know, the wind.
They clapped and cheered afterward, but didn’t pay a dime. We did not expect them to, for their forced entertainment. Over the next week Mari-lynn and I regrouped, tactically.
She lit upon the ingenious notion of drawing an audience with “Free Candy!” added to our fence posters.
We used her allowance (she got a true weekly sum, not just money for teeth; their house was the only one with wall-to-wall carpet and central air-conditioning; Mr. H. did something with “computers” (a fanciful word, like “astronauts”) to walk down to the pharmacy and buy candy. 8-year-old girls, then, could decide to walk a mile to a pharmacy by themselves. Horrifying stories of child abduction and milk-carton photos were several years away.
Mari-lynn was partial to Hershey bars or Baby Ruths. I could not find a better choice than a Payday, except maybe a $100,000 Bar. I liked the salt, and the peanuts, and the crazy-combo-textures. Even then, my salty-tooth was stronger than my sweet one.
If either of us were conscious of the irony of spending money on candy to make money so we could buy candy, neither of us mentioned it. We would guarantee that neighbor kids came to our next Songs and Dance only 10 cents.
And that show did draw many Boomer show-goers, older boy-neighbors, mostly. Who grabbed all the free candy and promptly dispersed. Before we sang a note or moved a muscle.
I remember thinking about that and laughing in the station-wagon, hundreds of miles and a few years beyond. My mom was driving the two of us home from “The Miracle of Womanhood” evening presentation at our Chicago-land school. We had moved to Oak Park, Ill., USA around the time Mari-lynn’s family had moved to Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Our parents arranged for a visit when we were 10 years old. Just a Great Lakes hop for me, really. First time I flew on an airplane by myself. And I think I appreciated that I was flying to a different country, but one much like my country of birth.
Back then, you got dressed up to take an airplane, almost like church. I wore a red blouse and a bone-white skirt with 3 cherries appliqued to one hip, an outfit my mother had to approve in advance. Not sure when the whole dressing-for-flying (or –theater-going) (or even –actual-churchgoing) went so casual. Maybe around the time the cost of flying dropped, and plane travel democratized? Or was it the dawning of aerobics videos on VHS – athleisure-wear, long before that was a word?
But I digress. My mom and I, along with my whole class of girls and their mothers, had been encouraged to attend “The Miracle of Womanhood” assembly that night. We were 5th-graders. I think the 6th- and 4th-grade girls might have been there, too.
We sat in the all-purpose gymnasium of St. Edmunds, knocking our shoes against folding metal chair-legs. Waiting for someone to step in front of the pull-down screen there, and make us stop talking.
We kept talking. Half our brains thought: pull-down screen = film-strip? This meant “slides,” small cardboard rectangles with smaller cellophane-like photographic images in their centers. The rectangles lined up around a hat-sized carousel. That carousel featured a built-in projector light and a cord with a button to push. The button forced the slides to revolve in front of the light in a leisurely orbit.
I know that sounds complicated and unlikely. Nowadays, “slide-show” means clicking a virtual arrow on an electronic screen, or swiping your very finger across the surface of a digital device. I asked some med-students recently if they knew what photographic “slides” were. Half of them nodded, sure. (Huge, even disproportionate, delight!)
Like anything tangible and pre-digital, photos could be destroyed forever by an excitable dog or younger brother or the heat of a trunk of a car in summertime. Or simply get lost in the folds of a cardboard box in the midst of a move to Chicago, or Boston, or DC. Fragile things, delicate and crack-able. Crackable as eggs. Eggs, with shelf-lives. Maybe to-be-expired in their ovarian tombs.
“Shall we get started, ladies – and young ladies?” asked a strange woman in a fancy suit through a microphone, also corded. She held the magic-slide button aloft like the Eucharist, if women had been allowed to hold and transubstantiate a Eucharist, which they were not in 1970, and still are not, as such in the Holy Roman Catholic Church. (I know. I digress.) (And, I hope the originating lovelovelove of a founding founder from Nazareth, as we initiate Pride Month, a man who would have been ALL their friends and supporters, as I crumple now in deafening sadness and memory, for the sake of dear friends, maybe cis-gender, maybe not, each and every one surely beloved by a man from Nazareth, if he were here today …)
Anyway. A series of illustrations flashed onto the screen. The fine-suited woman referred to the images as ovaries, fallopian tubes, uteri, as parts and of a system.
Something very “My Favorite Martian” about those drawings, with their helmets and antennae. Possibly botanical, with stalks and bulbs. Our jaws slack, my friends and I sat, grateful those parts were on the screen and not inside ourselves.
The woman droned on about cycles and “shedding” and men-stroo-ay-tion, coming soon, for us. A time of month when we should NOT attempt, under ANY circumstances, to be physically active. We should REST as much as possible, indoors.
Immobility, hot-water bottles and heating pads would ease the pain. The nature of the pain was also vague. Who knew what “cramp” would mean, when we’d only felt charley-horses or occasional growing pains in our legs?
Her tone shifted perceptibly. We recognized this as the difference between a young nun’s voice and the Mother Superior’s at a school assembly, a tone serious as a heart attack. The woman almost whispered. (Not at all like a Jimi who whispered “Mary,” and to whom that word meant gratitude and passion and longing and actual molecules.)
Now, she said, the possibility of fertilization by sper-ma-to-zo-a.
“Which means: children! Of course,” she added quickly, “once you’re married.”
Mothers chuckled. Some girls chuckled.
The married bearers of children in our neighborhoods seemed to me to get the short end of the adult stick. By law, not just a neighborhood vibe.
This Special Meeting happened 3 years before the U.S. Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA), wherein women were finally able to establish credit in their own names. Before then, a woman could only have a card in her husband’s name – he alone could legally hold credit. I know that must sound absurd to you, anyone younger, waiting to survive until the surprise of a hot-flash.
(Hmh? Oh. Single women were encouraged to find husbands. Those were the choices.)
A skinny, freckled arm shot up toward the cavernous ceiling. The hand started waving, a flower on its stalk in a crazy breeze.
“Do we have a question from a young lady?”
The girl attached to the skinny, freckled arm stood up.
“My cousin she had a baby and she wasn’t married.” She sat down abruptly. A thicker freckled arm smacked the girl’s red head and yanked her across her folding chair.
Our presenter blinked once, very slowly. “LA-DIES. We will not have children before we’re married. That is a sin” – she paused and settled her gaze upon our honest 5th-grader – “and we must wait until God tells us which man will be their father. And af-ter the sacrament of holy matrimony, we may have as many children as Heaven will allow.”
Grownups! Jeez and crackers, the way they talked.
Didn’t I wonder again about pregnant Virgin Mary, and her not-fathering husband? Wasn’t it all starting to sound a little convenient – both the sin part and the hey-oops-I'm-pregnant and the Heaven-will-allow part? I was already a wonderer.
What about our old neighbor, Mrs. B., back in Kensington, Maryland? In the only house on our street with no child inside?
It didn’t seem fair to me, that God wouldn’t allow the B.s the miracle of basic children. Especially when they longed for that miracle, and God seemed so intent on delivering that miracle.
Didn’t I wonder: either God is a little sketchy, or people who put words in his mouth are sketchy (like this lady in the fancy suit)?
Remembering Mrs. B., who still lived on a street now far away, was more fun than thinking if God might be sketchy. On the night of the Miracle-of-Womanhood special meeting, her pretzels and ginger-ale were half-an-America away and a few years past. Mrs. B’s lacy dining-room table slipped away with some new commotion underway in St. E’s all-purpose room.
“Please don’t shake the boxes! We’ll open them at the same time, ladies.” I looked up at my mother, and she made a face like, “Ooh, I don’t know what it could be!” but also like she did know.
The rumpus? Shoe-sized boxes, hand-passed down each row, “one for every young lady here tonight.” What – for free? I leaned over to catch Kathy or Sue’s eye and caught them both; we just shrugged, then shook our boxes near our ears.
The sound of bopping cardboard finally ebbed, and film-strip lady said, “All right, open up!”
We lifted the lids of our Miracle boxes to discover: a brochure replicating the bugs-or-botany drawings and a reminder to rest, one full week per month; a packet of several thick, cottony rectangles the same shape and texture as my new baby sister’s diapers; a flimsy belt with too many straps and clips and what was this, safety pins? likely to tangle up before I could even get them back in the box.
“Now you have your very own belts and padding to protect your clothing. You’ll get the hang of that belt in a jiff, once you use it.”
I held up that seriously old-school tangle of belt and straps and safety pins like it was a stinging sea creature. I promised myself: I. Will. Never. Use. This. Thing.
Someone’s older sister shouted something about “those tampons?”
But the older sister had not raised her hand nor waited patiently to ask.
Tampons were fairly new; we’d all heard of them by then. Some of us had heard of older girls who’d even used one. We didn’t think that made the girls “sluts,” though we’d had to consider that tampons took away our virginity. The question hovered in gym limbo, and would not be answered. Now we were even more confused.
“Now you know everything you need to know!"
We knew nothing. "All right. Let’s say an ‘Our Father’ before we part for the evening.”
Seemed to me a “Hail Mary” would’ve been more appropriate. But I also knew no woman had ever been elected U.S. Senator, nor punched through the atmosphere in a rocket-ship. Heck, girls couldn’t even be crossing guards at our Catholic school in Oak Park.
Knowing nothing, we bowed our heads and chanted the Our Father. After the briefest silence, St. E’s gym broke into echoes of knocking metal chairs and high-pitched voices sailing over the alto hum of moms.
On the way home in the station wagon, I asked my mother, “Do you know if Mr. and Mrs. B. ever got to adopt a baby? Back in Kensington?”
My mom looked at me, and asked what made me think of the B.s.
I shrugged a shoulder.
“Just, the fertilization and shedding and all.”
I glanced over. This was so rare, to be alone -- anywhere -- with my mother! With 6 kids and an unemployed man under her roof, maybe Miracle night was like a vacation for her. “Plus, the whatever heaven will allow,” I added.
She nodded slowly. “I’m not sure if they ever did adopt. I hope so. Maybe Mrs. H. would know.” (She said the last name; I’m initializing last names.)
“I hope they did, too,” I said. Maybe I could ask Mari-Lynn, still in Toronto.
Mrs. B., with her ginger-ale and pretzel-sticks, seemed especially fond of kids. I wanted her to have adopted at least a single kid. However that worked, heaven-allowance-wise.
I remembered the serious efforts Mari-lynn and I made for our big show. I laughed, out loud.
My mom asked, “What’s so funny?” as she turned the station wagon into our Chicago-land alley and our cold, gas-scented garage.
Show first, then candy, I thought to myself.
I said, “Nothing.” Who, at age 11 or 12, couldn’t appreciate one’s evolution from one’s 8- or 9-year-old self? “It doesn’t matter now.”
How I digress. And thank you. Show first, then candy. Some of us are slow learners, whether we have milk crates handy or not.
Free candy is a thing. It’s called living life at all. Growing up. Growing older. Feeling the hormonal shifts through all that. Drops of sweat vaulting from our fingertips. Gratitude. Unexpected vaults and heat and memory and passion and longing and still, new longing.
Knowing the TMI of all this, fist-bumps for anyone who’s made it this far. And bodily feeling from a guitar and voice from the late ‘60s, about a wind that cries. So many winds cry.
And so many winds sweat, and chill, and wonder, and grieve.
With you all, whatever songs were on a thing called a radio, or its equivalent, during your formative years.
Thanks for reading,