At eleven, my daughter has a friend almost a year younger who has begun menstruating. I’ll call her Faith. Maya and Faith have been BFFs for a while, so Maya was surprised and a little hurt when she found out during Christmas that Faith started her cycle the previous summer. Both girls are part of a group inspired by the Mother Daughter Project, an organization that challenges the myth that our adolescent girls must hate us and grow away from us during the time of development when they need a supportive mother and female community the most.
Soon another daughter from the group — I’ll call her Joy — got her period, and our collective group began to work on our menstruation bags that would be filled with special gifts from each mother-daughter pair to be opened when the special time came. With help from other mothers craftier than I, Maya made a reversible bag with batik blue fabric on the outside and green on the inside.
On the night of the planned mother-daughter ceremony, we all wrapped our bodies in scarves and Faith and Joy were anointed by their mothers with glitter. In a softly lit room, we sat in a circle, mothers behind daughters. In the center was a red scarf encircling a water bowl. Maya’s bag had been filled with the treasured gifts and was cinched closed.
Faith’s mother read a fitting piece about Hera, the Greek goddess of marriage and love.
“Oh yeah,” said one of the daughters, “the goddess of love.”
“Actually that’s Aphrodite,” Maya said, “Hera was better known as the Queen of Olympus.”
As Faith’s mom finished the reading Maya whispered to me, “It’s important to remember what a jealous woman she was too. Even Zeus, who wasn’t afraid of anything, feared her temper.”
I remember when Maya unlocked the secret to reading in early elementary school, she went from the “the cat on the mat” to D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths she’d received from my mother in about a week.
“Those aren’t exactly happy bedtime stories,” I commented at the time.
“I know,” she said, not looking up, “that’s why I like them.”
Even though she couldn’t remember to shut the car door or pick up her socks, she knew the entire lineage of the Greek gods and goddesses along with all nine muses and their special arts. Her fascination with all things Greek continued for years, and in fourth grade she did a presentation about their relationships, betrayal, misunderstandings, consequences and celebrations.
As I listened in amazement, I thought of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you.”
The next part of the mother-daughter ceremony was a symbolic candle lighting.
Joy’s mother said, “You will choose one of the lotus flower candles.”
Maya leaned forward expectantly and I winced, sensing what was coming.
“Does it have to be the one in front of us?” Maya asked.
“Oh,” said Joy’s mother quietly, “it’s just for the girls who have menstruated.”
Maya sat back.
A zig-zag of motherlove coursed through me. Suddenly I was thirteen, folding up a little piece of paper that said, “Please let me start my period” and sliding it through the slit in the top of my mom’s God Can. I wasn’t exactly sure if I believed in God or knew what God was, but there was no harm in asking. God could always say “no.” I had wanted my period so badly because over a year and a half, my six friends had started, one after another like some sort of tag game. No one had tagged me and I waited. Tag me, tag me. Might I be the first girl to never start her period? I felt separate from them because although I had read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., I didn’t really know what cramps felt like or which tampons fit better.
“You are so lucky,” my friends said.
But I didn’t feel lucky, not at all. I felt slow to develop and different. And at thirteen, I so desperately didn’t want to feel different.
I urge myself out of my baggage and back to the present. Faith chooses the blue lotus flower candle; Joy selects the purple one and they light them and float them in the bowl. Two candles burn bright while four others wait around the circle.
It’s now time for some individual mother-daughter time and I choose my words carefully. One thing I’ve learned from both my mother and my daughters is that a mother’s baggage isn’t necessarily her daughters’ baggage.
“Did you feel left out that you didn’t get to light a lotus candle?”
She shrugs. “I just really wanted the purple one and now it’s taken.”
There was that motherlove zig-zag again. Yes, it’s wonderful to honor the young girls who have started, but there are six colors of lotus flower candles. The girl who menstruates last will get the color that no one else chose. Which might be the exact color she wants, but Maya wanted purple.
I flashed to a scene from The Color Purple when Shug says, “I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.” Maya notices purple; she’s also evolved enough to know that the color of the candle doesn’t ultimately matter.
In this instance it matters to me.
It takes me back to Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club when Suyuan says to her daughter, “That bad crab, only you tried to take it. Everybody else want best quality. You, your thinking different. Waverly took best-quality crab. You took worst, because you have best-quality heart. You have style no one can teach. Must be born this way. I see you.”
That’s really all we want from our witnesses in life, isn’t it? For them to be able to say “I see you” and mean it.
This morning I emailed Joy and Faith’s mothers and I thanked them for a wonderful evening. Maya quickly moved beyond the lotus flower, but I have not. I accept that about myself; I’ve drawn a line. My daughter, with the best-quality heart, I decide, may also partake of the best-quality crab. Not because she takes it for herself — she has a style no one can teach — but because I will take it for her. On her behalf. I ask the mothers, “Would you be willing to tell me where you got the lotus flower candles?” That’s all I say.
I imagine that in mother-daughter group, when Maya has begun to menstruate, she’ll take whatever color is left. She won’t resent it, either. In that moment, she’ll be thankful and present.
But at home when it’s just the two of us, I will hand her the purple lotus flower candle and move a bowl of water between us.
As she looks at me with surprise and a bit of knowing, I will simply say, “I see you” and light the match.