Back in the day, my mother told me a slew of lies, but none worried me so much as the lie I divulge in Chapter 65 of my memoir, The Girl with the Black and Blue Doll.
When I reflect on Kristen and the Saturday night dances, I remember that not dancing was OK with me. I don’t know what I would have done if someone had asked me to dance. I watched American Bandstand, but that was a far cry from dancing for real. I didn’t have the self-confidence that junior high dance classes would have provided.
Back in eighth grade, some of my classmates had attended ballroom dancing classes at the United Church of Christ. They began with the fox trot and waltz, so they knew the basics.
When I asked my mother if I could go, Mum said, “Absolutely not!”
“That’s how girls get pregnant, ” she added.
It was the first time my mother mentioned anything remotely related to sex, and I was baffled. After that, I pressed my nose to the window whenever our school bus took the corner on Main and Church. I wondered what could possibly go on behind the clean brick walls of the United Church of Christ that would result in pregnancy. My friends Irene and Susan attended the classes. The morning after, they constantly rattled on about dancing with this or that cute guy. They were having fun. They were learning to communicate with boys. And they weren’t getting pregnant.
I was so confused!
During the summer before sixth grade, Mum felt she had fulfilled her sex education duty by handing me a booklet called Growing Up and Liking It. The Modess Corporation, a manufacturer of sanitary napkins, published the slim little pamphlet.
“These are the ‘Facts of Life’,” she said, handing it over for my inspection.
I brought the booklet upstairs and plopped on my bed to see what these “Facts of Life” were all about.
There were illustrations of the female reproductive organs—the uterus, the ovaries on each side connected by fallopian tubes. There was even a vagina through which a lively sperm was wiggling its way along in search of eggs.
The writer described how, each month, the ovaries released eggs. The illustration looked like a pinball machine layout. If an egg were fertilized, you’d get pregnant, and—Mamma Mia!—a baby would begin to grow inside you. The booklet neglected to explain how the egg got fertilized. I read it and re-read it. There was no explanation of how the sperm got in there, and there was no one with whom I could discuss this awkward topic. I thought it was damned poor editing on the part of the Modess Corporation.
It followed that every month, from age twelve until I was eighteen-and-a-half, I worried myself sick about getting pregnant. I marked my period on the free Hallmark pocket calendars we got at the pharmacy checkout counter. I drew a star for each bloody day and double stars for days of particularly heavy flow. During my period, I was relieved and buoyant. I was also in terrible discomfort since I was one of those unlucky ones who had to endure severe menstrual cramps aching all the way down my inner thighs, practically to my knees. I had curl-up-in-fetal-position pain, with eyes-shut and teeth-clenched pain.
“Mum, I have cramps, and aspirin isn’t helping,” I said.
“That’s the ‘Facts of Life’,” was all she said.
One month, I told my mother I was late.
“What have you been doing that you’re worried about your period being late?” she said. Her words were staccato. Her eyes were alarmed.
“Nothing,” I said. This was certainly true. But later, when I was getting ready for a blind double date to the drive-in with my neighbor with her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s friend, my mother confronted me again.
“Your father wants to make sure you know about the Facts of Life,” she said.
I assumed he meant my period and those enduring cramps. I didn’t know why he cared, but whatever.
“Yeah. I know.”
By the way, when I went to the drive-in, sitting in the back seat with the blind date, I was too shy to say a word during the entire night. Likewise, my blind date didn’t say a word. After the movie, they dropped me off in my driveway, and I fled into the house. Is that what dating was supposed to be like?
Around the time of the ballroom dancing classes—perhaps even instigated by my inquiry into the ballroom dancing classes—my mother confiscated my juvenile cotton underpants and replaced them with tight, white, nylon-spandex panty girdles. They were ghastly. I knew from the occasional gust of wind on the playground that other girls wore garter belts. The nylons Mum brought home were thigh-high with seams up the back and buttoned onto my panty girdles. Pantyhose hadn’t been invented yet.
Years later, my first real boyfriend slid his hand beneath my skirt. It was the summer after high school graduation. He was horrified.
“Are you wearing a girdle?”
He squinted through his Coke-bottle eyeglasses.
This episode, by far, beat any other humiliation in my past. I felt the familiar heat of a blush rise to the tips of my ears. As soon as he asked, it dawned on me that maybe this was my mother’s idea of birth control. Those panty girdles weren’t for jiggle control! I didn’t have anything to jiggle! And who would consider having sex with her daughter if she wore an ugly panty girdle? Mum needn’t have worried about me having sex because I had no idea what sex was. Despite growing up on a farm in the midst of a couple of dozen cows who were frequently pregnant after being tended to by our resident bull, I had never seen fertilization in action—except for that one time when our German Shepherd, Lady, was bushwhacked in the garage by the neighbor’s mutt.
In high school, I had a few crushes, but no one ever asked me out until Bill, a good-looking young man who sat next to me in homeroom in tenth grade. He used to be “Billy” in elementary school. Still, high school has a way of giving young people the opportunity to modify their details. Bill invited me to a semi-formal dance during junior year’s start of football season. It was “Homecoming.” I wore an above-the-knee, seafoam green, shantung dress with white tights. Fabric rosettes decorated my brown patent-leather flats, and Bill brought me a wrist corsage of sweet-smelling gardenias. We both smiled awkwardly under the scrutiny of the hundred-watt ceiling light in my parents’ front hall.
This occasion was only the second time I had ever eaten in a sit-down restaurant, the first being that lunch with Mémère when I was nine. Bill and I had dinner at a steak house called Dante’s Inferno. I hoped I wouldn’t embarrass him with my lack of manners. If I had known it would be the only time I would ever be invited to a dinner and dance in high school, I would have paid more attention. That fall, we also went to museum openings, an occasional foreign film, and my first movie in a cinema—the new style of movie theater attached to the equally new malls.
We saw Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in The Graduate. It was my first non-Disney, non-Elvis movie. Of course, I didn’t know what Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson were up to when the camera framed Benjamin in the triangle of Mrs. Robinson’s shapely leg. (Fun fact. I know now that it wasn’t even Anne Bancroft’s leg in The Graduate poster. It was Linda Gray’s.)
Bill chuckled knowingly during the implied sex scenes while I was ill at ease. He occasionally gave me a chaste kiss good night. Once, we even experimented with what amounted to basic necking, pressing our lips onto each other’s lips without much enthusiasm. At the time, his lack of interest contributed to my deep-seated belief that I was unlovable. Decades later, I would learn that he was gay and that there had been no reflection on me.
A couple of months after the semi-formal dance, it was Christmas week. I put on that same seafoam green shantung dress and drove myself to Denholm’s Department Store in the city twenty miles away on a school night. As if proof of my emotional immaturity—and my hesitation to leave childhood far behind—I was on my way to fulfilling my childhood fantasy of having my picture taken with Santa Claus. I must have told Mum and Dad because I had to ask permission to borrow the car. If they thought it strange that a sixteen-year-old would be going to see a department store Santa, they didn’t say anything about it.
I stood in line with the little kids in my seafoam green shantung dress. It was the prettiest dress I have ever owned—bar none. Children and their mothers did not notice me, or maybe they did. I was nervous. I had my coat unbuttoned, ready to shed quickly as I got closer to Santa.
When it was my turn, I handed my coat to an elf. I stepped up to Santa and sat timidly on the edge of his lap, barely touching his red velvet thigh. I told him I wanted nothing except the photo and directed one of my rare smiles toward the elf with the camera. Santa didn’t say too much. Maybe he ho-ho-hoed. After the camera flashed, I stepped down from the Santa throne, and a few minutes later, my Polaroid snapshot was ready. Santa’s elf handed it to me in a Merry Christmas photo card.
I liked it. I did. I saw myself carefully seated on Santa’s thigh in my seafoam green, shantung dress with the white tights. My long, brown hair looked perfectly clean and shiny. I couldn’t find fault with anything about my appearance. I stared at the photo as I rode down the escalator and floated out the door to where it was snowing lightly—a scattering of fluffy flakes under the streetlights to top off this fairy-tale evening.
I drove home on autopilot, parked the car in the driveway, and before anyone had time to question me, I hung my coat in the closet and went upstairs to bed. I’ve never shared that experience with anyone before now. Maybe I’ve always been embarrassed at being so lonely and emotionally withdrawn, but having my photograph taken with Santa Claus at age sixteen made me happy.
My mother could have saved me eight years of anxiety about unexpected pregnancy if she had told me right up front or given me a book about actual sex, not a booklet pussyfooting around about some fertilized eggs. Suppose I had known the essential “Facts of Life”. In that case, I might have better disputed her claim about the United Church of Christ dance classes. I might have found a reason to smile at all those Saturday night dances.
And why, I wonder, did the topic of sex never come up when my girlfriends and I got together?