I was a backward child, wandering dreamily in a world filled with mysteries and miracles. At ten, even as my breasts were starting to develop, my mother had to sit me down and inform me that it was parents who gave their children gifts on the feast of the Epiphany–not the Magi following the star on their camels. Prior to her revelation, I had felt no need to question the story. I had been taught that my guardian angel hovered over my right shoulder as I went about my day, and the Virgin Mary personally kept vigil over my bed at night, so why not flying camels and wandering stars?
One day a couple of years later, informed by the maid who made my bed that overnight I had transitioned from niña to mujer, my mother called me into her room and handed me a box of sanitary napkins and a belt.
“What’s all this?” I asked, oblivious to the events of the night.
She explained the basics. Thinking that menstruation was an annoying but temporary manifestation of adolescence, like acne, I asked her when it would stop. My mother smiled. “Not until you are very old,” she said.
Along with the supplies, she handed me a Spanish translation of a booklet published by Modess. It had line drawings of cool-looking American girls in circle skirts and saddle shoes, and, less interesting, sketches of the organs that menstrual blood came from. The booklet did not explain what the bleeding was for, and it never occurred to me that it had anything to do with babies, much less with men. I did notice that some pages seemed to have been cut out of the booklet, but I didn’t ask.
Now that I would have to carry those bulky pads around with me, my mother decided that I needed a purse. We were living in Quito at the time, and you couldn’t simply walk into a store and buy one. Like furniture and clothing, purses had to be made to order. She took me to the man who made things out of leather, and they had a conversation about the design of the purse while I stood on one foot and then the other, daydreaming. They decided on one in the shape of a flattened flower pot.
As they discussed the kind of leather–cow, pig, alligator?– to be used, the man said something that startled me out of my trance. “I have something that would be perfect for the child,” he said, spreading a skin on the counter. It was covered in short, fine, honey-colored fur. He ran his fingers over it and smiled at my mother. “It is unborn calf. Feel how soft…”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “That is impossible. How can you make a purse out of a calf that is not born, that doesn’t exist?”
“Hush!” my mother said.
\”No, really,\” I persisted. \”It\’s absurd!\”
My mother gave the man a deposit for the purse and hustled me out of the store. At home she explained that before birth calves grew for several months inside mother cows, just as human babies grew inside their mothers. Again, she made no mention of bulls or men, and again I didn’t ask. After all, hadn’t Our Lord been \”conceived of the Holy Spirit\”? But that was not the main issue on my mind.
“It must hurt a lot when the baby comes out!”
“Yes, of course,” my mother said. “Maybe that is why mothers love their children so much.”
I remember feeling skeptical about this. Why would one love something because it hurt? But of course many other painful things were supposed to be good or even holy–fasting before communion, giving one’s allowance to the poor, not to mention Our Lord’s death on the cross—so the pain of childbirth fit right in with my worldview.
Although I am sorry that I embarrassed my mother and the leather man that day, I nevertheless recall my preadolescent self with tolerance. My lack of curiosity about sex was not evidence of an impoverished mind. On the contrary, my mind was already so full of unfathomable things that there was no room for thinking about mundane stuff like where babies came from. Figuring out what impelled Saint Eulalia at age thirteen to confront the Roman governor of Barcelona, an avid persecutor of Christians, who then proceeded to torture and kill her, was more engrossing than wondering how that calf got into the cow in the first place.
I wore the calf-skin purse for a long time, until the zipper broke. Another thing that I neglected to wonder about during those years is what had to happen to the cow in order for her unborn calf to be made into a purse. I regret that I came late to an awareness of the suffering of animals, but I am making up for it now.