does not happen but once in our life, but several times.
Not at those frequent crossroads … but at the turn of our internal clock … our life moving inexorably forward to a new … although perhaps … frightening new time.
Hormones spill over into our psyche and cause chaos or what the parent of a teenager might see as temporary insanity. Other bouts of insanity might occur during pregnancy or at the mid-life when hormones and other things are drying up.
For today, I will concentrate on the first major female change of life … the first time girls realize their internal clocks are moving to midnight of a new day … the on-set of puberty. For each female this is different. And no one can predict how anyone will react.
For our little Antoinette, that new day came early.
Sunset Park-The summer of 1954 …
Carmela tossed and turned at night, grumbled throughout the day in two languages and could not stop the march of time and the effects it was having on her two younger children. More than ever they began to mirror each other in looks and actions, more than ever she was convinced she had given birth to Joseph’s twin when she delivered Antoinette.
Joey had passed his fourteenth birthday and in six months changed sizes two times. His “baby” fat was melting and for the first time in years he was one inch taller than his baby sister.
He was gone from the apartment for longer hours, defied his mother’s rule about being home before the streetlights came on and on three occasions Andrew woke in the middle of the night to find he was gone.
Carmela worried more than ever that he’d find a new brand of mischief; girls. The girls in the neighborhood and the girls in his new school started to swoon and each night calls came in at the candy store.
Five months short of her tenth birthday, Carmella began to notice changes in Antoinette. Subtle at first, her extroverted personality became melancholy. She brooded around the house, only leaving to go to school, begging Joey or Michael to do her errands. She cried for no reason, refused to eat and lost all interest in her skates, in her choir practice and even caused Mother Superior to have the school nurse take her temperature.
Andrew was on the phone at the candy store. “I got your message Mother, is there a problem with Antoinette?”
“Yes there’s a problem. She hardly participates in her classes. She’s lost all interest in her choir practice and not once in the last two weeks has she been on punishment for talking too much. I would say that’s a problem.”
The first week she ditched choir practice, Antoinette roamed down the long hills, listening to the sounds of the factories, the tugs, the foghorns, or traffic on the streets behind her. Factory machinery continued clicking off the hours until another day ended. Inside this cocoon she sat quietly for hours, watching and listening to her world.
When it was almost dusk, she’d head down to the docks walking past the Big Ben on the corner of Second Avenue, in front of the Brooklyn Savings and Loan. She’d wait to hear the long whine of the work whistles, announcing the end of day. Workers rushed from the factories, scurried towards the trolley stop and began the long walk up the hill to home or the Third Avenue Bus.
Other days she’d walk up to Sunset Park and sit on the brick wall at the highest spot watching the soft pastels of the sunset stretch their arms across the horizon.
Carmela and Angelina were sitting in the Gallucci front parlor. “I don’t understand what’s wrong. First she refuses to leave the house. Now she refuses to get home on time for supper.”
“You know what’s wrong.” Angelina smiled. “You have to talk to her about this.”
“I can take it with Joseph. He is fourteen and he’s a boy. But Antoinette doesn’t even turn ten until September.”
Angelina pointed to the window. “Call her up while there is no one else in the house.”
Antoinette was busy listening to Mr. Tafozzoli explain how his pigeons were going to compete the following weekend. “We’re going to get first prize this time.”
Then she heard the voice of her mother calling her. She walked through the French doors. “Hi mom, did you call me?”
“Several times I believe.”
Angelina put her arm over Antoinette’s shoulder and kissed her on the cheek. “My you are heads above me child. You do grow like a wild flower.”
Antoinette blushed. Angelina didn’t call her a “weed” like so many of the adults in her world. And in her mind, she thought wild flower was a better fit.
Antoinette looked around. “What’s up?”
Carmela perched on the edge of the wing back chair and shook her head. Of course she knew her friend was right. It was time to have that talk. But how could such a thing be happening to her little girl? “I just can’t Angelina.”
“Oh fiddlesticks … of course you can.” Angelina took Antoinette’s hand. “Come and sit here on the sofa with me.”
Antoinette hesitated. What if one of the women saw her taking the trolley, something she was still forbidden to do without an adult or one of her brothers. What if Sister called and told Andrew she had skipped out on choir practice twice in one week?
“Is something wrong?” Antoinette asked.
“No dear … nothing’s wrong.” Angelina patted the sofa. “Your mom and I want to talk to you about something.”
She sat and asked, “Did something happen to Michael?”
Angelina laughed. “No, it’s about you. You complained to your mom about feeling sore near your underarm?”
She hunched forward, her arms holding her chest. In the bath she saw her chest looking like she had hives and her arms hurt. Too embarrassed to talk about her hives, she quickly commented, “Oh, that’s because I fell off my bike last week.”
Angelina smiled, “Don’t be afraid, sweetheart. I’m going to check. The three of us are alone.”
Angelina put her hands delicately over Antoinette’s chest, moving the palms up and down and then around and around on her thin summer T-shirt. She moved her hand to Antoinette’s underarm. “Does it hurt when I push on them?”
“Not that much.”
“Have any of the little girls in your school or your playmates talked about the ‘period?’”
“Well we have a free period on Tuesday to do our special projects. That’s when we’re allowed to go and borrow from the library.”
Angelina smiled. “No dear … not that type of period.”
“Oh Angelina, I can’t. She’s a baby.”
“Carmela, grow up. She’s a baby with boobs.”
Antoinette jumped off the sofa. “I don’t have those.” She pointed to her mother’s abundant breasts.
“They’re called breasts dear.” Angelina smiled pointing to her rather small breasts. “And yours are more like mine. You know, small?”
Carmela finally spoke, “It means you’re becoming a woman.” Tears spilled down her cheeks. “My little baby girl.”
Antoinette and Joey loved puzzles. In her mind she was now connecting the pieces of this puzzle and she didn’t like the picture.
Angelina patted the sofa once again. “Sit down dear and let me tell you about your period.”
Three hours later, Joey found his sister sitting on the fieldstone wall in Sunset Park and called to her, “Waiting for another sunset?”
She turned her face away. “Go away Joey.”
He sat next to her and brushed a wisp of hair off her face. “Mom has sent the Calvary to bring you back.”
“I said go away.” She pushed his hand aside. “Tell her you didn’t find me.”
“You’re upset because Angelina told you about—”
“Don’t say it.”
He shrugged. “You are kinda young, though it sure explains a lot.”
She started to get off and he pulled her back. “It’s not something to feel rotten about. A little scared or confused … but not rotten.”
She turned to him. “Then why is mom crying like that?”
“Because she doesn’t want you to grow up. She wants you to stay a baby for a while longer. Like they mentally push on the top of your head, thinking they can stop you from growing.”
She looked down at her chest. “I don’t want to grow there.”
“Here, there … you’ll grow all over. And you’ll be dynamite. Aw …”
She was crying. He pulled his sister to him and held her tight. “Mom didn’t mean to make you upset. It’s not what you think. Something wonderful is going to happen to you and … well … it’s the type of thing that makes mothers cry.”
Joey pulled her off the wall. “Let’s go to Fifth Avenue and get an ice-cream soda. That should cheer you up.”
“Joey, it’s not funny.”
“Oh come on, we’ll talk while we walk to the ice-cream parlor.”
“Angelina thinks it’s wonderful too.”
“Well it is.”
By the afternoon of the next day, Antoinette had forgotten where or if she was growing and remembered it was that time of year. Time to do what she did each summer since she was born … go to the beach at Coney Island.
Girls to women … women to girls …
Our little girl will adjust and continue to grow in Sunset Park.
What women do as they continue to grow is incorporate all the changes from without and within and use them to shape their world. Antoinette grows up to do this with her cameras … others do it with a paint brush and then there are those of us who do it with words.
As writers or mothers … as story-tellers or wives … as sisters and daughters … we use those words to carry a new day to others who can’t express what they are feeling.
The major gift of the misunderstood genre of women’s fiction … is women speaking to and for women. Women using their unique perception to tell the stories no one else can tell.
We are the care-takers and the nurturers of our world … and when we can mold and shape who we are into a story to comfort or entertain or to reach out to give a gal a hug … we are fulfilling our destiny.
What change in your life was most significant?
Did it carry you and someone else to a new day?