I first made the acquaintance of my Aunt Flo at the age of eleven. Oh, I'd heard rumors about her...my mother's furtive, awkward and obviously embarrassed attempt to explain who she was, after I'd asked about the content of the Kotex boxes in my parents' closet. I figured, at the time, that she wasn't someone I really cared to meet anyway.
But then one summer day I decided to ride my bike over to my mom's sister and brother, who owned a farm several miles away. I'd been feeling strange, twinge-y sensations in my gut all morning but thought they were due to something I'd eaten. Imagine my surprise and alarm when I arrived at my aunt and uncle's place and found that I was bleeding profusely, right through my pants. I remember my aunt's kindly but flustered explanation of what was going on, and the unusually quiet ride home in their truck with my poor bachelor uncle. I remember my mother's less-than-reassuring observation that "This is just the beginning -- your life is going to get a lot harder," and my father's obvious discomfort in being around me, something I was not used to at all; he treated me, his heretofore li'l buddy, as if I'd just been irradiated. And I remember being taken, that day, to the store to procure my own box of Kotex.
Uh-oh. That's what I thought, curled up in bed that evening, weeping, knees clutched against my cramping abdomen, feeling blood pulsing out of me with each contraction. Uh-oh. Uh-oh. Uh-oh.
So that's how I got to know Aunt Flo. And yet, after this most unpromising introduction, her visits soon became run-of-the-mill. I insisted on purchasing tampons (thank you,Teen magazine) despite my mother's skepticism ("I could never use those..."), which diminished the ick factor quite a bit; and I started learning the rhythms of her visits: things like her punctuality; her tendency to show up during the dark of the moon, and at night; her quirks, like cramps only every other month. And soon I'd gotten to the point of being able to discuss Aunt Flo with my peers, and discover that most of us were all experiencing the same things. We spoke knowingly of being "on the rag," swapping war stories and Midol.
A few years and many chest-pounding, running-with-the-wolves feminist authors later I'd not only accepted Aunt Flo's monthly visitations, but celebrated them as manifestations of female power. I knew that the cultural squeamishness and downright contempt aimed at Aunt Flo in various cultures over the centuries -- the separation of menstruating women from the rest of the community, the ritual uncleanliness, the petty humiliations -- had their basis in a primal male fear of this phenomenon -- of bleeding without wound, of bleeding elicited by the moon, of the mysterious forces ruling female sexuality and fertility, beyond the capacity of prescientific societies to comprehend. Oh, the boys may have framed the issue in terms of their disgust -- but we women knew, down in our bones, that they were actually scared witless by Aunt Flo's feminine mojo. Yeah, yeah, yeah -- we'll sequester ourselves over in the red tent so we don't adulterate your masculine purity [nudge-wink] with our polluting [nudge-wink] "unclean" [nudge-wink] presence. [Whoo-hoo! The red tent!]
It was just about the time that I had finally truly embraced Aunt Flo as a sisterfriend that she began a pattern of erratic behavior. If I were under a lot of stress or not taking care of myself, she'd maybe skip a month, then come back and linger for two weeks. Once she appeared to move in with no intention of ever leaving, necessitating my having to have her surgically evicted. (A process that my then-gynecologist described as involving "maybe a moderate amount of discomfort," which is something like saying that being repeatedly run over by a cement truck involves a moderate amount of discomfort.)
These days Aunt Flo is likely to stop in for just a day or two -- barely a visit. Sometimes she just kind of hangs around the doorway, bags in hand: Maybe I'll just go to a motel this time, honey. And -- I kind of miss her. I mean, I know she can be messy and inconvenient, and I've often treated her like the crazy relative we all try to avoid sitting next to at holiday dinners...but after 35 years we have a history, Aunt Flo and I. And it actually makes me a little sad when she doesn't show up. I'm anxious that one day she'll leave and not come back; that she'll find herself a nice little condo in Florida and stay there. I -- I'm not ready for that. Not yet.
So, Aunt Flo, if you're reading this -- I have a snuggly afghan and a cup of tea waiting for you. Potato chips. Chocolate. Advil and a heating pad, even, if you're in an owly mood. Seriously -- I want you to come over. Don't be a stranger.