I grew up in a femme house. The occupants were all women. The only family and friends who ever visited were also – for the most part – only women. This was one part accidental and two parts natural consequence of divorce and occupation. My mother was a secretary for many years and her co-workers and friends were all women and also mostly secretaries too.
Having all of these women forming the backdrop of my childhood gave me an up-close and intensely personal view of what being a lady could mean. For the era of my tomboy childhood days it seemed to me that being a lady meant chain smoking cigarettes while thumbing through Spiegel Catalogues, glass jars of Oil of Olay, every shade of mauve nail polish, and Pat Benatar records playing on repeat. Ladies sat around my mother’s kitchen table talking about how much they hated their bosses and what was Cheryl going to do about her cheating husband?
It all seemed boring. I kept to my room where I made slingshots out of coat hangers and rubber bands. I built a treehouse in the back yard. I caught frogs and snakes.
And then one day I got my period. And I was mortified.
My mother was ecstatic about the sharp left turn my body had made into womanhood. I was embarrassed and curious and just wanted to hide in my room.
“Listen, young lady” she said. “You’re a woman now whether you like it or not. There is one important thing you need to know. Your vagina is not a tchotchke. Got it?”
I nodded with wide-eyed horror. My mother had just said vagina.
“You can’t sell it, give it away, let it get covered in dust, treat like a disease, or ignore it like a liver. You must keep it healthy and only share it with someone who will respect it and love it. Also, douching is really bad and so are those lady perfumes, you don’t need any of that jazz.”
I wasn’t sure if this was The Talk that I had heard vague whispers about at recess, but it was by far the craziest and most humiliating conversation I had ever had with my mother. Even worse than when she explained Punky Brewster’s growth spurt problem.
But her advice stuck with me. My vagina is not a tchotchke. I was really choosey about who I shared it with. I kept it healthy. I avoided those drugstore concoctions that promised feminine freshness.
And now that I have sons, I find myself editing this same speech in my head, readying myself for that moment when I will take a deep breath and stand back as the advice from my mother comes echoing through the fug of embarrassment and eye rolling of my two budding men.