BloodLines: "Coming of Age in August" by Elizabeth Abbott
We’ve partnered with the Canada Council for the Arts to present a new literary series: BloodLines. Inspired by this year’s Massey Lectures by Lawrence Hill, Blood: The Stuff of Life, BloodLines features new fiction, nonfiction and poetry inspired by the theme of blood—written by ten Canadian writers who have won or been nominated for Governor General’s Literary Awards.
In Elizabeth Abbott’s BloodLines piece, “becoming a woman” is even more complicated when you’re at Camp Macaza.
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“Coming of Age in August” by Elizabeth Abbott
In the chill of the northern Laurentians just after sunrise in mid-August, the mist obliterated the shoreline around Lac Chaud and blurred us campers into stick figures slipping down into the water. We eight girls were skinny dipping, performing our daily ablutions under the supervision of our teenaged counselor.
But I had an unnerving secret. Earlier, in our outhouse toilet, I had wiped away blood. I peered at it, aghast. Where had it come from, that bright red smear? How could I have unknowingly injured myself between my legs, in that most private of places? Thankfully none of the girls perched on adjacent seats had noticed. I needed time alone to think about what to do.
But first came the ritual plunge into Lac Chaud, as warm as its name as I surrendered my body to it. Afterward, pulling on my shorts and T-shirt, I surreptitiously checked for blood. Gone! I was cleansed and free to forget that early morning aberration.
My carefree trot up from the lake to our cabin ended that delusion. On the pretext of adjusting my shorts, I peeked at my crotch and recoiled. I was bleeding again! Should I tell the counselor? But would she know what to do? Somehow my problem seemed too overwhelming for a seventeen-year-old to tackle. In lieu of parents—mine were far away in Montreal—I had no option but to take this urgent matter to Miss Ruby Smith, Camp Macaza’s director.
I found Miss Smith in the tuck shop. She was a compact, athletic woman who exuded a no-nonsense kindliness. Five summers ago, when she opened Camp Macaza for junior campers, I had arrived as a non-swimming seven-year-old bed wetter. Now I scuffled into Miss Smith’s presence as a strong swimmer and canoeist plagued by effluvia of a different sort.
Traipsing along the beaten mud path to the tuck shop, I planned out what I would say. But as soon as I saw Miss Smith, I burst into tears and sniffled out an unrehearsed version of my plight.
She listened without interrupting. Then she smiled. “This is wonderful news, Elizabeth. You’ve become a young lady!”
I stared. A young lady? What did young ladyhood have to do with blood-stained panties? Miss Smith cocked her head. “You do know about the monthly cycle?”
I shook my head.
“Your mother didn’t ?” her voice trailed off and then picked up again, briskly. “Well, then, here are a few things you should know.” Which is how I learned, among other things, that I could now have a baby, a notion so outlandish that I sniggered in disbelief when Miss Smith mentioned it.
Half an hour later I walked purposefully back to the cabin, clutching a tuck shop paper bag that concealed a box of Kotex and an elasticized sanitary belt. After a protracted session in the outhouse, mercifully alone, I emerged padded and protected to begin this new stage of my life.
First, an urgent letter to my parents in Montreal: “Dear Mummy and Daddy, How are you? I am fine. Today I became a young lady. Please send Kotex.”
Next I shared the news with my cabin-mates. One girl shrugged uneasily, but my friend Jayne offered both congratulations and advice because her mother, anticipating that this very thing might happen to her when she away at camp, had told Jayne everything. Jayne’s version was quite different from Miss Smith’s. The monthly bleeding, for instance, meant that though I could now have a baby, I wasn’t going to have one, at least that month.
The next day, as the whole camp gathered around the flagpole to recite ‘Salutation to the Dawn,’ I whispered the news to my boyfriend, Monty, who was just eleven but the only boy at camp taller than I was. Monty was puzzled. “What does that mean?”
What did it mean, besides blood? “Well, I’m special now. I can have a baby, but not yet, and Miss Smith says I can’t go swimming this week.”
Monty frowned. “That doesn’t sound special at all!” he said finally. “Swimming’s fun!”
I sighed. This wasn’t going to be easy. How could I explain what Miss Smith called my “ripening womanhood” without mentioning how—and from where—blood came into the picture? Monty was a boy. He’d be embarrassed to death, and he still wouldn’t understand. And so I said, hoping to sound dignified, “This is only my second day as a young lady. I’m not sure yet why it’s so special, but it just is. And yes, swimming’s fun!”
Elizabeth Abbott is a Senior Research Associate at Trinity College, University of Toronto, and the former Dean of Women. She is the author of a trilogy on human relationships: A History of Celibacy, A History of Mistresses, and A History of Marriage (the latter of which was a finalist for the 2010 Governor General’s Literary Award in Nonfiction). Before moving to Toronto she lived in Montreal and Port-au-Prince. She is an advocate for social justice and has written two books on Haiti: Tropical Obsession: A Universal Tragedy in Four Acts Set in Haiti, and Haiti: A Shattered Nation. A related publication is her book: Sugar: A Bittersweet History. She is a member of TWUC and PEN Canada.
Photo credit: John Loper
Read the stories we received for our public BloodLines challenge »
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