Deborah Pratt Curtiss
Every time my parents tried to tell me about the facts of life was a perfect opportunity to resist. Sticking my fingers in my ears, I’d run away, “Don’t talk to me about that! It makes me sick,” I’d scream.
For nine years, age 4 to 13, we lived on a one-acre-plus “farmette” where we had cats, rabbits, ducks and eventually my older brother raised chickens: sold their eggs, and slaughtered them to cook and eat. There were also raccoons, moles, squirrels, skunks, and of course, birds and bees.
It was from my peers that I eventually learned about menstruation, which also sickened me. It seemed bloody unfair —pun intended. I wanted no part of it! I learned that some of my seventh-grade friends had started. One of our group, who had far too big a bosom, actually started in fourth grade! I was horrified, felt deeply sorry for her.
Then my family moved, so I was in a new school for 8th grade. All but two of the 17 girls in my class had begun her period. I began to figure that my young hope might come true, that perhaps I was strange, incomplete, somehow backward. Then Carol, too, got her period, leaving me as the only one still a little girl. I didn’t feel like a little girl, only that something was wrong, I was weird.
One weekend in the spring that year, my dad’s oldest brother, Uncle Bob, and Aunt Esther came to visit. Esther had enormous breasts that I saw when I was staying with their younger daughter, my cousin MB. Esther was getting ready for bed and shamelessly undressed in front of MB and me. I saw her huge breasts: at least twice the size of my mother’s!
Esther also wore an elastic belt that was hitched to a white pad that went between her legs. “I won’t have any fun tonight with this contraption on,” she complained. I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about, and MB, who was two years older than I, just chuckled. When I asked MB, she tried to explain, but I put my head under the pillow in the twin bed where I was to sleep in her bedroom.
This time, though, in my family’s house on the 700-acre county farm where we lived for two years when my dad was Deputy Commissioner of Welfare, we had finished dinner. Bob, Esther, and my parents were enjoying cordials in the living room. Everybody in my extended family drank a lot. Even we kids —our cousins, my older and younger brothers, and me— were given beer on occasion. Only uncle Don, though, was considered an alcoholic.
When it came time for me to shower and go to bed, I went into the bathroom, pulled down my pants to go to the toilet. It was then that I saw a brown stain in my underpants. It wasn’t poop. It was too much in the front, in my pee place. My heart leapt and raced. Was this it? Horror and relief garbled in my head. Maybe it was gargled. I couldn’t tell.
What should I do now? I wondered. And I trembled, shook all over.
Getting up, I opened the bathroom door a crack and called, “Mom, would you come here?”
“Why,” she asked?
“Because,” I answered.
“Give me one good reason,” she called back.
“Please,” I begged.
“We’re busy,” she replied. “Come out and tell me what’s on your mind.”
“I can’t. I don’t have any clothes on,” I lied, as I didn’t have the courage to undress yet.
“Oh, all right,” she sighed, taking her time to walk the 15 feet or so to the bathroom door. By that time, I was unable to speak further. I urged her inside and closed the door. Then I pulled my underpants forward and down to show her the brown stain.
“Oh,” she said, “Finally! Well, go ahead and take your shower. Let me know when you’re through and I’ll come back and fix you up.”
She left the bathroom and closed the door behind her. I breathed deeply trying to calm myself.
Just then, I heard a loud burst of laughter from the living room. Apparently, my parents, aunt, and uncle thought it completely hilarious that I had gotten my first period. In nine days I will be 14, I silently noted.
My hands shook as I unbuttoned my blouse, when I grabbed my washcloth, when I got into the shower and turned on the water. I let the warm water pour over me as I leaned against the shower-stall wall, and took some more deep breaths. I really wanted to cry. So I did, silently. I let the warm shower pour over my face and hair. Welcome to womanhood, I thought to myself. If this is any indication, it’s going to be a bitch. YOU CAN HAVE IT! I wanted to scream.
There was no brown stuff on the towel when I dried myself, but my mother, perhaps thinking enough time had passed, came to the bathroom door with the same elastic belt I’d seen on Esther several years earlier, and a Modess pad (my mother disdained Kotex, but use Tampax, I was to learn later) and fitted me up with it, showed me how to thread the Modess tabs into the toothed brackets hanging front and back from the elastic belt.
I retired to the bedroom that I shared with my younger brother, who was already asleep. Somehow I’ll survive this, I thought and soon escaped into sleep myself.
In the morning, the pad was as white as when I put it on. It would be another month or so before I saw real blood, and the curse of womanhood became my own to accept but never love.
I last menstruated December 14, 1999, age 62 & 7+ months, again mostly a brown smudge. Hot flashes were my bane from June 1995 to some unrecorded time in 2015, encompassing my second marriage, October 9, 1999, to husband John's death, April 10, 2011. I have yet to learn of anyone in my cohort missing either menstruation or hot flashes.
Born in New York City and raised in NY State, Deborah Pratt Curtiss attended Antioch
College in Yellow Springs Ohio, Yale University School of Art in New Haven
Connecticut (BFAp, 1961), and University of the Arts in Philadelphia Pennsylvania
She taught drawing, painting, and visual literacy at several Philadelphia Universities,
and co-founded Greene Street Artists www.greenestreetartists.org where she lived
and created for 25 years just prior to moving to Seattle WA in 2017. Along the way,
she presented more than 100 solo exhibits —the most recent two in Seattle— and
has participated in countless juried/curated group exhibits nationwide.
Devoted to synthesizing drawing and painting, her works are represented in multiple
public collections, and are privately owned in Canada, France, Germany, Israel,
Kuwait, Japan, Scotland, and throughout the US. She displays her art as
Deborah has authored two books and hundreds of published articles on art and visual
literacy. Upon completing a series of 28 paintings titled, MEDITATIONS ON A POST-HUMAN
EARTH in 2012, and conceptualizing an unrealized series, THE PLANET WILL SURVIVE, she
turned her attention to writing creatively, which has kept her artistic juices flowing.