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Heidi Jon Schmidt

Though my mother was in all ways dramatic, in her menses she was Euripidean. Hers was no ordinary flux but a cataract that might, like any of her qualities, have powered a small mill, lit up a village or at least a hamlet, if only she could channel it somehow, bring it under control.

"Look at that!" She pointed an accusatory finger at the spindle chair whose needlepoint roses were suddenly awash. "This is my second period this month! And I only just sat down!"

She sounded helpless, despairing, as one who might at any moment be carried over a falls. We knew better: this blood was her secret strength, her pride. Like anyone who possesses a surfeit she was careful not to boast, but she and any seer who looked could tell: here was an inestimable source; wider, deeper, richer than any other. It was treacherous perhaps, but what great gift is not? She was more than fertile, she was teeming, and she stood before us, (me, Emma, and Grace; our brothers were outside) in her grand, peasant's body, and wailed as if railing at Zeus.

"Why? Why, when I'm wearing white, when we're out of tampax, when... Sophie, go upstairs and rip me a towel. One of the pink ones."

Her voice turned instantly to acid: she was thinking of my father. The towels, plush as the heavy petals of some vulgar rose, had been a gift from him. They were the only luxury in our house, whose ruination, punctuated by a quick snap as a knob came unstuck from its door, or our nervous silence, watching a new leak seep into the wallpaper, had followed a gentle, steady course for years. As we sold off the living room furniture, we'd become increasingly proud of the rug. We took another pride in our tattered linens, the towels that had lost their color and gone stiff and trapezoidal from drying on the line. Feral women need no accoutrement. We ought to bathe in the rivers, live without benefit of towels. The pink ones remained in the closet. To use one was to ally yourself with my father, and become a despised traitor to Ma.

He was a genial, daydreamy soul whose face betrayed nothing more hateful than confusion. He lived less and less with us and more and more with his mother, near his job in New York, but he usually came home on the weekends. On Fridays we awoke with a sense of purpose which otherwise we sorely lacked. We must sweep, scrub, bake for him! Emma smacked the drowsy spiders out of their webs. Grace, sleeves up, elbows pumping, scoured the bathrooms. I, the least useful, was sent into the fields -- from forsythia forced out of its icy bud in March, to the last scruffy aster, for my father every vase, urn, and bottle must be filled. Returning with my sheaf of weeds, I would open the door to a blast of cinnamon heat -- apple pies. If everything was clean, bright, and sweet enough Pop would never want to leave.

We bathed in turn, passed the lilac water between us, pulled our softest things over our heads. How lucky we were to be women, to possess a bit of the world's beauty right in ourselves! At the mirror, edging into each other's reflections, we pinned the hair up or shook it down, trying pouts and haughty glances we could never have worn in real life. Then, there he was: we ran down to throw the door open, and like some four-headed, silk draped dragon, flung our arms out to him, all calling his name at once.

He kissed us with quizzical disappointment. All week he'd dreamt of his sweet children and here was an unknown tribe. Everything we did seemed to wound him, to remind him he didn't belong, and looking again, we saw ourselves, flawed, through his eyes. I wore my thrift-shop kimono, Grace had Ma's cocktail dress, circa 1955...where were his gentle, well-bred daughters? We were so garish, so awkward -- why?

When he came in with that gift, he amazed us. So, he did love us, after all! Ma took it with a wondering smile, praising the paper and ribbon, exclaiming as if she'd never seen a Bloomingdale's box before. It was one of those times when her rages abated and she seemed like a little girl. Touching one of the towels to her cheek, she looked up at him, too grateful, her eyes welling. She was ready to take him back into her heart, to pour her hopes and griefs out to him finally, to do anything, anything at all for his love's sake...but that was how it always went: one drop started a flood with her, one spark and the world exploded.

Pop froze, as one endangered, and became warily casual.

"My mother picked them up," he said. "She thought they'd match the bath."

Had he really said that? Even the word was wrong -- bath, a euphemism from a world of his-and-hers sinks. Even Grace, who could not have been more than ten, blinked up at him in surprise.

In the silence I begged God for the power of ventriloquism -- I'd have moved Pop's tongue to speak his heart, just one time -- but my prayer was not successful, and my father, who after all did not know us terribly well and could not have guessed the effect his words were having, went on to say that Gram would be happy to exchange the towels, if they were wrong. Pink -- safe, fluffy pink -- was her favorite. Our bathroom was sulphur yellow. In the wet heat of August, mushrooms would sprout between the tiles overnight.

"Exchange them?"

This question was magnificently rhetorical. Ma stood -- in fact, she towered -- and, stretching the towel out between two fists clenched tight, made to tear it in two.

It did not give. Though she was tense as a lion with its prey, though she tugged and wrenched and finally began to rip at the heavy fabric with her teeth, nothing happened. Another towel would have rent biblically asunder, with a sound that tore my father's heart, but even here he had foiled her. This damned towel was too tough.

"Emma, get me the scissors." Ma was shaking. Her scene was wrecked, and anyway, what drama could have moved him? Did we need Shakespeare, or Wagner, or must Clytemnestra step from the stage with her ax?

We would never find out. The louder the tempest, the more ghostly Pop became, until one day he would fade entirely from our lives. As Ma sawed, with the nail scissors, at the pink brocade hem, he composed himself -- straightened his stance, hardened his expression, and became again our emissary from civilization, the man who went up in the elevator, watched the tickertape, and knew how right-thinking people behaved.

He began his familiar remonstrance: Dear God, where was her...

"Please," I thought, "don't say `reason'." It was a terrible thing to say "reason" to Ma. Reason was for those who, unable to consult an inner orb of feeling, must live instead by calculation. Reasoning was like trying to build a scale model of love.

Reason, in short, was for men, and Ma dropped her arms at the hated word, regarding her husband across the impossible gulf.

"It makes no sense," he was saying, but her gaze silenced him. She let it stretch until sense seemed like the weirdest thing on earth. Then, above such absurdity, she dropped the towel, and the scissors.

"Thank your mother very much," she said.

From that time on, the towels stayed deep in the closet, both despicable and desired, suitable only for menstrual rags. By the day the needlepoint chair flooded there was only one left, and though it was so voluptuous I was pained even to think of ripping it, Ma's word was law. I made a series of quick cuts along the weave and tore it into even strips, marvelling at the strength of my own arms. I was growing almost as fierce as my mother. Someday a lover would bathe me, dipping the pitcher to douse my hair until the streams ran clear down my back, wrapping me, once I had broken the clasp of the water, in something as soft as this.

My mother plucked the strips from my hand and folded one in threes. Lifting her skirt, she made a quick, balletic knee bend, tucked the rag into the crotch of her panties and let the elastic snap smartly back.

"Thank you, sweetheart," she said, happy now, settling in with her book as if there was nothing cozier than for us all to be here at the hearth, menstruating together, soaking our stained garments in cold water, bolting liver and sardines to replenish our badly depleted stores of iron. The rain coursed over the windows, sizzled in the fire. Dreamy, perhaps anemic, Ma told the stories of her life before we knew her. France, home of her ancestors, where she and my father, just married, ate little octopi arranged in a circle like primordial Rockettes. Italy -- that brazen gondolier. But why had Ma been poling down the Rio Dolorosa del Amore alone? Where (that doomed, eternal question), where was my father?

And where were my brothers? Building a fort on the hillside? Inventing a religion in the barn? Before they came in we must hide the needlepoint chair. What would they think if they knew we were bleeding, bleeding, bleeding all the time? No, they must think of us cooking, stirring soup in great tureens. What should we make them for dinner? Ma, Grace, and Emma mused on this question like children inventing a life for their dolls, though there was only half a chicken and some wilting greens. Emma would have to bake a pie.

"Then, in Germany..." Ma said, looking far, far away. "Germany is such a beautiful country." We braced: Pop's grandfather had emigrated from there.

"I can't imagine why they allow the Germans to live in it." That voice froze and scalded at once. Better, rather than hear it, never to speak Pop's name. How had someone as fragile, as baffled as my father, become so loathed and feared? Ma dreamed he was a Nazi, that he was chasing her over our back hill. It was the boots -- she woke up screaming, and got into bed with me. What would happen when she remembered that his blood was mixed in mine? Might there someday come a world war in my veins?

"Ma, where are the apples?"

"Apples?" Ma sounded as if she had heard of these, perhaps, but never seen one.

"You just said we had apples," the kitchen door swung open to reveal Emma in a puff of flour. "I rolled out the pie."

"There were apples yesterday," Ma said, vaguely. Surely her own daughter was not becoming a logician?

Never. Do the planets contend with the sun? They follow their orbits, keep as far as they can without freezing, and Emma, ever obliging, shrugged. "Oh well, it'll keep," she said, with a quick, sister's glance at me.

Who, ever dreaming, said nothing. I didn't want to break my trance. There, my English teacher, who was currently appearing in the role of the lover, touched me as if I was the most precious thing on earth. He was a shy man, his voice so quiet we had to strain to hear his grave, careful glosses on the epic works he loved. He needed someone like me, who watched him (fumbling with his bifocals, describing Circe's wiles), with the intensity of one whose womb glows red within. Could he read my heart, in the way I turned my pages? I could not see the words "brave Odysseus" without a tender thought for him.

I was preparing to follow my parents into the world of love, where across history women have dashed themselves to death against their petrified men. Pop looked so brave in his wedding picture, posing beside my mother proud as a novice pilot with his jet. A year later I was born, and down the dark halls of memory I can see her, smoking in black sorrow at the kitchen table, waiting for something he couldn't give. He stood there and stood there, in the doorway, wondering what to do, until she lost her patience.

"Say something, say something!"

Mute, guilty and frightened, he moved a step toward her, reached to stroke her head. She was blessed with more feeling than he, that was all, and in those days, from her queenly estate, she forgave him. That was when I loved them best, the two of them like one ungainly creature, both laughing, Ma struggling to keep her balance as she carried him up the stairs to her bed. 

Originally published in the March/ April 1993 issue of Boston Review

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