Quiet Hands, Wandering Thoughts on the Transition to Womanhood
Tuesday afternoons bring a sweet reprieve. Up at Meg’s farm, we exist without clocks or schedules, freed from the effort of our busy-ness. The dim horse barn is a cave of patience, exuding a balm of animal musk, hay, sawdust, grain, and leather.
Twelve horses graze in the surrounding pastures; their collective breath soothes the day’s agitation. I lie in the dappled sun on a blanket beneath the old apple tree, quizzing nine-year-old Ava on her spelling words while Carmen has her riding lesson.
Gutsy, gallop, glitter
Ava nails them all. These are the words she already got wrong in school, and she won’t make the same mistakes twice. I watch Carmen (age seven) trot along on Buddy the pony, a handsome little fellow with a gleaming chocolate coat and a big Napoleon complex. Carmen posts bouncily, a bit off-kilter, trying to keep time with Buddy’s quick trot.
“Quiet hands, heels down,” calls Meg, and indeed my girl’s hands are not quiet, bouncing about with her gait. There’s so much to remember – how to steer with her body, lead with her gaze, ride like a queen, spine-to-spine with the animal.
Late goldenrod teems beyond the dusty ring. Ava lies on her belly plucking pieces of grass, always fidgety, fingers in motion. Why can’t she keep still? I manage to resist irritation, close my eyes and try to savor the moment, drain the last drops of elixir from summer’s goblet.
Goblet, gutless, gasping
Fourth-grade spelling is harder than I remember, though I don’t remember much from that year beyond my sticker collection, stored in a spiral-bound book behind protected pages – puffy stickers, googly-eyed ones, scratch-n-sniff, and the precious, rainbowed, oily stickers that changed colors when you stroked them. We traded stickers during recess and choice time, and the collecting and wanting went on for months until I swapped my entire collection for Lely Campbell’s roller-skating Smurfette. My friends couldn’t believe I’d given up everything. But I was ready for the change; I never looked back.
Gimmick, gunnysack, gladiator
Ava spells it with an –er, then quickly backtracks and corrects herself.
“No! Don’t tell me! I know it,” she cries.
Four mares graze in the pasture beside the ring. If given the chance by a timid rider, Buddy will stop in mid-lesson, pause by the fence closest to the females, and stamp his feet like a matador, whinnying loudly to prove his importance. The dignified mares rarely glance his way, more interested in munching timothy and navigating their own complex social hierarchies. The horse farm is not unlike a school playground, its daily displays of power and exclusivity. Ava and I laugh at Buddy’s bravado, and she throws little piles of grass in my lap.
“Mommy, can I ask you a question?”
“What happens if you’re not at home when you get your period?”
The afternoon light darkens a shade, the blue-grey tinge of a coming storm. I draw in a breath. “Wow. Have you been thinking about this?” My first baby just turned nine, has crossed over this summer into the big-kid realm, now closer to adolescence than she is to preschool.
“A little,” she admits.
“Well, you probably have a good two years before your period comes. At least two,” I say hopefully. “But it’s good to be prepared.”
She’s quiet, plucking more grass, never still. I put my hand over hers.
“If you were at school you could go to Nurse Amy,” I say, “and she’d give you a pad and call me and I’d pick you up.” Ava half-smiles.
I continue: “And if you were at a friend’s house you could tell the mom – if you felt comfortable – and she’d help you and call me. But really, it’s good to know that just a little bit of blood comes out at first. You can fold up some toilet paper and put it in your panties, and you’ll be fine.”
“Really?” She looks relieved. Had she imagined a gushing river? She’s heard me talk about getting my period on Christmas in sixth grade, in the midst of family chaos in my grandparents’ three-story Tudor. The cousins had woken early to the lemony scent of Milanderli cookies baking, the black velvet curtains in the living room drawn tight. Behind the velvet waited the wondrous tree, decorated in the night by the grown-ups during their very merry gin-and-tonic party.
I’d lain awake past midnight listening to the tidal ebb and flow of their laughter, imagining the fairy lights, the heirloom candleholders from Switzerland, the cherished ornaments unwrapped from tissue nests. In the morning, a small city of presents lay waiting to be razed.
At 11, I longed to be included in the annual decorating, hated being lumped together with my baby cousins. I was in a rush to grow up, but there was so much I didn’t understand. The fiery scald of the spiked eggnog, my grandfather’s red-faced, too-loud laugh, my petite grandmother scurrying nervously back and forth to her basement headquarters, her stores of wrapping paper, ribbons, tape and cards piled on the ping-pong table — and the brownish stains on my panties I’d noticed for a few days.
How strange and shameful – had I not wiped well enough? I balled up the panties and stuffed them in the bottom of my suitcase, took out a clean pair, but the same thing kept happening. I told no one, used more toilet paper, tried to wipe fastidiously until finally the dull-brown color tinged into red and I understood. A vague shock flooded my belly. So this was the legacy of my Judy Blume education.
I went searching for my mother in the rambling house, found her in the cookie-dough kitchen in a floury apron with my baby sister on her lap. Whispered in her ear: "Mama, I got my period."
“Oh, sweetie!” She hugged me close, said she was proud, but pride had nothing to do with it. I followed her to my grandmother’s bathroom closet, flushed with embarrassment at my body’s early betrayal. I didn’t want anyone else to know.
Plague, hieroglyph, foliage
These are the challenge words. Ava must memorize the rules and the exceptions. The apple truck thunders by the horse farm with its stacked crates balanced. September rustles in a translucent procession of green and gold, ochre and rust. It happens every year, so why am I amazed? The cycle of change unveiled before us, the trees surrendering the ghosts of summer.
Bandage, gymnast, archeology
Ava recites them perfectly. This fall she is a vision of mastery, running the one-mile faster each week in cross country, urging Fable the chestnut Morgan into a smooth canter when it’s her turn to ride. But some nights she can’t fall asleep, even after a hot bath and warm milk with honey, after deep breathing and guided relaxation.
Eventually, I give her homeopathic Calms Forte tablets, and sometimes resort to Benadryl, two teaspoons, her eyes wide with the insomniac’s horror: What if I stay awake all night? When I rub her third eye and the nape of her neck, she softens like a rag beneath my fingers.
I try to soothe my daughter’s anxiety despite the quiet undercurrent of my own. I try to answer questions as they arise, help both my girls remember rules I may have forgotten or never knew: spelling, math, horses, friendships.
Some afternoons Ava rides her bike home after lessons, one mile down the dirt road from Meg’s farm to our house. This privilege is granted because she is careful, keeps to the right, obeys all traffic laws, brakes when she hears a car. Many mothers I know would not allow such freedom, but I relish the convenience and trust our rural neighborhood. And I love how gracefully she coasts into the driveway, sitting tall, hair streaming, cheeks flushed, as if she’s returned to the fold after a brief, private journey.