“I tell you, she was beside herself!”

“I would be too. Imagine finding your child like that.”

“Linda isn’t exactly a child.”

“Oh come on! What is she: sixteen? How would you feel if you found Melanie passed out in the bathroom?”

“I’m not going to let her use those things. And she hasn’t started yet.”

“I can’t believe they sell them to unmarried women. Have you tried them?”

“Me? No. There’s only one thing I’m letting in there, and I’m not even crazy about that.” My mother giggles. “I use good old-fashioned pads.”

I’m eavesdropping. It was not premeditated. My mother is having coffee with our across-the-street neighbor Ruth. They’re discussing what happened to Linda Fortier, who lives next door to Ruth, when Linda tried using a Tampax. I’ve just turned fourteen and haven’t had a period yet. I’d kill to have a period. I’ll use whatever, when I get a period.

I happened to be on the way to the utility room toilet when I overheard their words. I like that one because my brothers don’t use it and won’t bug me if I read in there for awhile. Now I pause to listen.

“I bought a box once,” Ruth announces. “I remember taking it to the bathroom and pulling out a folded-up sheet of information and instructions on really thin paper. I couldn’t handle the anatomical illustration. I opened one little package and I was so put off by the cardboard tube and the string that I just never went further. Imagine walking around with a string dangling!” I hear her put her coffee cup into its saucer. “Did you say Melanie hasn’t started yet?”

“That’s right. And I’m concerned. She’s fourteen now. If she doesn’t start in a few months I’m taking her to the doctor.”

“I’m sure nothing’s wrong,” Ruth murmurs. It hadn’t occurred to me that something could be wrong. I skipped third grade so I’m younger than the other kids in my class. I guess I suspected I was behind the curve, because since we got to seventh grade we’ve had to yell “sponge” in PE roll call, to indicate that we won’t be showering that day because we have our period, and a year ago I started faking it by saying “sponge” every four weeks, unnecessarily. But that was just so I didn’t stand out or invite any questions. I never thought a doctor would have to be involved.

Mom and Ruth are on another subject, and I’m no longer interested, so I proceed to the bathroom. But I remember their words. Three months later I finally “become a woman” in my mother’s view. She slaps my face gently when I give her the news. She tells me it’s a family tradition. Her mother did it to her. It’s about me keeping my rosy cheeks as I age.

I don’t ask for tampons at first. I’m so relieved to be a normal girl and not have to see the doctor that I accept the pads and belt my mother buys for me. It’s an awkward rig, but this is the early 1960s – I started eighth grade wearing a girdle to hold up the stockings I insisted Mom buy me for special occasions. There are still many advances to be made in comfortable women’s wear.

A few months later I beg my mother to buy me a box of Tampax, and she does. I take the box with me into the bathroom and lock the door. Mom normally won’t let us lock the bathroom door but she acts like she doesn’t notice. I sit on the toilet, open the box, unfold the paper inside, and read it. Then I follow the instructions.

Piece of cake. No problem at all. I can’t figure out what made Linda Fortier lose consciousness, but I don’t think it was tampon insertion.

There was one other Fortier bathroom incident from which my mother tried to learn. The family went on a three week vacation the following summer. As I heard it, they put the toilet seats down when they left. They (and my mother) were stunned to find mold growing in the toilet bowls when the family returned. That’s all it took. From then on Mom advised us not to put down the toilet seat lid, ever.

These are two examples of lessons I learned about the need to ignore my mother’s advice. Dad was more wise and rational and patient, but he could be an idiot too. I was extremely nearsighted. My eyeglass lenses were thick and heavy and by the time I was fifteen, I wanted contact lenses more than anything in the world. Dad wouldn’t give the okay. He kept harping on how hard it would be for me to adjust to them, how fickle I am about what I say I want, how likely I’d be to give it up after he and Mom paid for the contacts. He made me wait till my first year in college before giving in. I’m sure I’ve telegraphed this last phrase, but I had no trouble adjusting to hard contact lenses. I think there was a day or two of a scratchy eyelid feeling, and that was it.

Over time, I came to distrust my mother’s advice. In addition to enjoying the convenience of tampons and regularly closing the toilet lid, I ran my own tests about going out less than twenty-four hours after a fever stopped, letting more than a week go by before washing the bed linens, eating foods after their “best if used by” date, enjoying sex (the woman told me never to let a boy put his tongue in my mouth, for starters).

Again and again I concluded that Mom wasn’t correct. Just recently, I opened a jar of wheat germ that advised me it would be best used by late 2006. That jar had been in my refrigerator since before then, airtight. It looked, smelled, cooked, and tasted just fine. A year ago I popped the cap on a bottle of Negro Modelo that had been in the back of my fridge for a decade. It tasted a little off at first. But I left the open bottle on the counter and tried another gulp ten minutes later. It was like the air-exposure allowed it to reconstitute. It was fine.

I laughed at both events. It’s not hard to conclude that no one is running tests on ten-year old wheat germ or beer. It’s like when meds are prohibited for pregnant or nursing women: that’s not because of experimental results – you’re not allowed to run a clinical test on a bunch of gravid or lactating women! Folks who slap on these “use by” labels are just logicking through a subject. And they’re not correct. They’re thinking too simplistically, like when people who are trying to cut back on sugar avoid dry wine or hard liquor, concluding that because sugar was fermented to make the booze, the drink is still sugar-full (it’s not…alcohol is metabolized more like a fat).

I mostly disregarded Mom. And I mostly regarded Dad. Yes he was wrong about the contact lenses, but in other cases he was correctly informed or able to do his own reasoning. Dad was a mechanical engineer. He also acquired an electrical engineering license, and he understood stationary structures, but he was mainly a mechanical man, and he was thoroughly an engineer. He’s the person who told me that the word comes from the same origin as genius.

What I learned to appreciate about engineering is elegance. A well-engineered design will not be overbuilt. The engineer will choose the equipment and design that will serve the purpose, and won’t add unnecessary reinforcement. Sure there can be redundancies and backups, but there won’t be three-inch nails if one-inch screws will do the job.

In my middle age I kept company with a brilliant impulsive individual named Lawrence. He’d answer to “Lawr” but never to “Larry.” He’d also answer to “Sudden,” because that was what his parents and sisters called him when he was young. Lawrence had a major case of Attention Deficit Disorder before there were meds for it.

He grew up anyway. But he made choices that avoided consequences from his distractibility. He became a stone mason and partnered with an extrovert who could make all the appointments, render all the estimates, and remind Lawrence, at least daily, about where he had to be. So Lawrence worked in the trades; he picked up a lot of information about construction. From non-engineers.

When we were friends, Lawr did some repairs and a few improvements on my house. In all cases, he overbuilt. He never admitted it, but he was always unsure about structural integrity unless he used a bit more bracing or other fortification. He hadn’t been able to handle the school time necessary to learn elegance.

So he concluded that more must be better. Like my mom. Like so many I meet.

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