memory of an aunt

She kept a tidy, minimalist apartment with only the necessities: a simple two person settee, wingback reading chair, side table for library books and her readers, dining table and four chairs, and two extra chairs on either side of a small roll-top desk. In her bedroom, there was a full-size bed and simple chest of drawers, upon which sat a jewelry box lined in purple to house her well-organized adornments- the only pizzazz she allowed herself. In the kitchen, there was a basic set of pots and pans, along with a beautiful four-cup china teapot set she’d acquired on travel group trip to China many years before. For dining, she had she never added to her wedding glassware or china and, like her deceased husband, never did she need replace it.

As she sipped from a delicate etched glass, I would gaze at the scene with awe. In our home there was nothing that perfectly simple. It called to me. How could a drinking glass be art? But there it was, art in the simplest action of one’s day. During lunch, she sipped from the glass and the afternoon sun would glance against the etchings and toss newborn stars across her wall. The Children- my sister and I- were only allowed to drink from the two jam jars she had long ago put aside for our use. It never occurred to me I would one day, in her home, drink from anything besides a jam jar. So on the day she presented me with 12 ounces of icy, orange spiced tea in a glass that birthed stars I was speechless.

She made no comment about the change, simply presented me the glass and gave my shoulder a squeeze. When I was done, I carried my rite of passage to the kitchen without word- washed, rinsed, towel dried and returned the glass to its assigned cabinet. I knew I had done well by this unspoken leveling up, when the next morning I was given juice from a short, delicate green milk glass that she kept well out of reach. My younger sister began to object to not being included in this passage and I stuck my tongue out at her. She took a deep breath that would have turned into a blustery argument at home, but Charlotte simply said, “That’s enough out of the two of you,” and the fight was over. She loved us both so completely and evenly that we never felt the need to compete in her presence. Besides, she wouldn’t have it. Grown folks didn’t behave that way and neither would her nieces.

lingering lo mein

Around the corner from my place in Bushwick there was a walk-up Chinese spot. They had a thin noodle lo mein the likes of which I have never found again. In the early months of my pregnancy I ate it about three times a week. I knew I had become a regular when the ever present kids would stay and giggle when I walked up, no longer running to the back of the shop. As I approached the counter, their mom would shout my order to the kitchen and then rhetorically question, “That’s it, yes?,” while ringing up the same $5.34 total each visit brought.

Now I have been back in Austin for over a decade and about a year ago I ventured into a little Chinese take-away spot I had passed for years, never stopping because, “How good could it be?” Silly me, those are always the best places for what you need in comfort food. No pretense- simply offering their food. No need to boast, they are consistent and semi-friendly and close. I have to say, their lo mein isn’t the same as my beloved Bushwick version with its angel hair noodles and slivers of veggies and ginger. Like any past love, none will match it but there will be space in the heart’s memory for new and different love. The new lo mein is chunkier all around, using wide noodles that are not magically light, but more fulfilling in their balance of chew and crunch. The vegetables have a wonderful smokiness, more variety, and there’s always enough for two. It is a new comfort food that I look forward to.

My daughter never got to try my Bushwick lo mein. We went back to find it, but the building that the walk-up counter was tucked into had succumbed to the push of gentrification. An overpriced, metallic apartment building now stands in place of giggling children and summer sidewalk chalk. While that experience can only be shared with her through the romance of memory, I am happy knowing part of her childhood memory will be getting dinner from this new spot. One day, Wok ‘N Express will be part of her cache of stories- her favorite childhood lo mein and how no one else’s will ever be quite the same.

precious packages

I was going to Monday night breathing yoga, but a friend stopped by. She’s nearing three weeks tardy and said hello with all too familiar pain in the area of my silent womb. Thus far, the labor of releasing this cycle’s underutilized life force has only needed two precautionary Tylenol pain killers, but 30 minutes can take me from being at the gym to hardly able to drive, white knuckle pain and nausea.

I’ve dreaded this first day of my cycle since one morning during the summer of my 12th year. That day, I woke to bloodied legs under my nightgown, intense pain in my lower back followed by searing pain behind my pubic bone. From that cycle on, it was a pain I would endure nearly every month for decades. On rare occasion, the pain would be low enough to only take a couple pain pills, though I would be braced in fear that a greater pain was waiting to release in my body. But that was to be my future. On that first morning, thanks to my mother’s thorough explanation of puberty and sexuality, I poured a really hot bath and took some painkillers. Then I hid in my room, as is not unusual for a 12-year-old, and my absence went unnoticed by my widowed, single mom who left me and my sister mostly unattended. 

It was 1987 and, while my mother ran an industrial photography business out of our garage, we kept ourselves alive on canned ravioli, pb&j and sweet tea for most of the summer. I successfully hid my fresh source of hell called womanhood from her for the months of that summer and well into sixth grade. She was a woman with a huge heart, but near zero empathy, and even less sense of confidentiality. I labored through early cycles in silent pain rather than experience her announcing my period had arrived to the entire extended family over a Sunday meal at my grandparents. My fear of such a social humiliation pushed me to endure pain so deep I would hallucinate in the tiny upstairs bathroom I shared with my sister. Its pink tile becoming a giant womb that I was most certain I would die and be reborn within. In fact, I was being reborn during those first months. 

The months turned into years and somehow my one piece of ‘luck’ was that my cycles would begin at dawn on Saturdays so I managed to avoid the pain falling on school days. In the spring of sixth grade, on one of those ‘lucky’ Saturday afternoons, having washed down pain meds with a glass of wine, as I’d watched her do, my mother found me asleep on the bathroom floor. She woke me up and asked why the hell I was sleeping in my bathroom when I had a perfectly good bed. I told her I didn’t know and she said that wasn’t a good enough answer. Finally, I admitted I’d started my period, had taken a hot bath and pain meds- but omitted the fact of drinking wine- and fell asleep on the floor because I thought I might vomit. She asked why I hadn’t told her I’d started my cycle. I simply told her I figured I could manage it on my own. She told me I should take fewer pills and have some wine to help the pain, but otherwise seemed satisfied with my answer. She got me to Planned Parenthood as quickly as possible so I could get on birth control to help the pain. 

Within days I heard her on the phone with my grandmother telling her that I had started my cycle and was now on birth control to help with the pain. There was a long pause and then she replied, “Mother, she’s barely 13 and as far as I can tell she doesn’t even like boys yet. She’s not like we were. She likes airplanes. God help us with that one.” 

The next weekend we would go my grandparents’ ranch for Easter Sunday. When we arrived, my favorite uncle was getting out of his truck. As I ran to hug him he put his arms out and said, “Well look at you! I hear you are a young lady now and, look at that, you are even getting some sunflowers there.” It was as if I’d turned into a show animal and, at the time I wasn’t sure why, but I stopped dead in my tracks, crossed my arms over my developing chest and avoided him for the next thirty-five years- until he died. It was a devastating breech of trust for my mother to say anything to anyone, but for him to announce the changes in my body was a second violation of my young body and psyche by a man. I would speak to no one about either until I was well into my 30s. Even though I logically knew they were in the wrong, I felt my body had caused their actions so I was also at fault. 

Unlike avoiding my uncle, the pain of laboring through mensuration continued and couldn’t be avoided. I feared being off birth control would make it even worse. I wouldn’t figure out for more than a decade that BC did little for my cramps but increased my near constant low level- hidden with a cynical smile- depression. The fact that it was a major contributor to my depression wouldn’t really click until after I birthed my child. All told, through my pre-pregnancy, birthing, and nursing years I was off BC for almost three years. When I got back on it, I witnessed an immediate shift to my mood that made me recognize the connection between depression and BC in my body. 

For decades, menstruation was merely a function of my physiology meant to be managed and controlled. There was no celebration and I feared for the pain it brought to me every month. I saw menstruation as a responsibility to protect my body. I saw that puberty changed my body and created notice from men that I was not yet ready for, though I was told I should appreciate. I was not taught to deflect or develop healthy boundaries, but rather encouraged to take advantage men who my mother saw as useful, but foolish, tools. 

Now, at 44, I have gone through much therapy and recognize what I was denied in not being able to celebrate the onset of my womanhood, much less every other aspect of being woman and the healthy beauty that can contain with great abundance. Having experienced pregnancy and a first wave of peri-menopause I am learning that there are so many celebrations to womanhood and I will embrace every one that I have remaining in my body over the next untold years.

So tonight, rather than go to yoga and possibly get hit by a wave of pain, I went to the grocery store and bought a lovely brie cheese, crackers and a decent bottle of wine. I thanked my body for continuing to have strength and life force. I said goodbye to the egg that was not even able to drop into my womb, but reabsorbed by my body. I enjoyed my crackers and cheese with some apple and a glass of wine. I wrote and I prayed a small thanks that my pain has continued to be absent this cycle. Now, every cycle I have is simply my hormones moving through their schedule. My body’s fallopian tubes were removed, so my monthly seed releasing life-force is truly only for my own creative power. There is no chance of life begetting life, yet I feel more vital than I ever have. 

With each cycle, the change fever may return and my cycles will be become less often until they completely fade. There was a time I prayed that change would happen terrifically, aberrantly early in my life, but now I feel a slight melancholy for the end of the monthly shedding of life-force. Though its end will lead to a new and beautiful, different stage it is one that I’ve only just learned to appreciate and honor. 

I suppose the ancient beauty lies in that every woman holds this life-force and my future years can be used as a vehicle to teach the next generations to love themselves. To fully honor the creativity, power, and life-force each beautiful sister holds within her body. Whether or not they ever choose to carry life- by growing a human- within their body, each woman holds the seeds of life. In those seeds- those two beautiful packages of seeds we are each born with- there is a power and joy that will never go unfulfilled but hold the energy to fill your heart, soul, and body with a life-force that can be unstoppable if you simply open your heart to yourself.