That Christmas I Got My First Period In A Homeless Shelter

All this week, The Establishment will be sharing stories from our Sadlarious Holiday Series. In lieu of sentimental platitudes and Hallmark-approved happy endings, these short essays focus on the messy, tragicomic spirit of the season.

Turn up your Pandora holiday playlist, spike some eggnog, and enjoy.

***

My Christmases have not always been good ones; they also haven’t always been bad ones. Strangely, the Christmas I recall most fondly is a bit of both, from the holiday season I lived at the Salvation Army shelter in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, when I was 12.

My mom and I had moved to the shelter after we got kicked out of a nasty freeway motel at the very fringes of the suburbs where I’d spent my entire life. Our homelessness had begun when we’d moved in with my aunt and cousin earlier that summer, after losing our house. To a seventh grader, the fancy hotels were exciting at first, but soon we could only afford the worst sorts of places — and then suddenly, we couldn’t afford anything at all.

Somehow, less than two weeks before Christmas (a very high demand time for shelters), my mom managed to get us a set of bunk beds at a shelter just south of the college where I’d eventually get my bachelor’s degree (the campus and shelter were so close, in fact, that I could see the shelter when I walked into my dorm).

The barracks-style building was already decked out for the holidays when we moved in, with the tacky kind of silver tinsel garland that my mom always hated, a huge fake tree that we didn’t get to help decorate, and several small ones that we did. On every wall were the kinds of holiday crafts kids make in preschool. It was so festive, it almost made you forget that the place was essentially run like a prison; we had chores and rules and a curfew. We had no privacy, shared our room with two other strangers, and were locked into the building every night. To make sure we didn’t get lazy, we were also locked out for eight hours every morning unless we had a really good reason to stay “home.”

But not on Christmas. We were still locked in, but we didn’t have to leave for eight hours: We could luxuriate in holiday safety and security, as long as we went to a little mandatory mass in the preschool room. So by 6 a.m., when the morning alarm sounded throughout the shelter, all of the children were already wide awake with excitement — there were even rampant rumors that we might each get a present or two from the staffers who knew us by name. But what greeted us was so much more: Each of us had been given a huge pile of gifts, with our names on them, supplied by a family that had been given our sizes, interests, and ages in advance.

I’m fairly certain I’ve never received so many gifts, ever before or ever since. But honestly, I don’t remember what I got, because what happened in the morning pales in comparison to what followed.

After we opened presents and enjoyed breakfast in the cafeteria area, everyone watched football and Christmas movies in the common rooms, and there were cookies everywhere. The homemade sugar cookies, I remember, were a little too brown at the edges and doused in too many sprinkles, so I stuck with the blue-tin Danish butter cookies, eating all of the ones shaped like pretzels, because I’m a jerk. At some point before the midday meal, my mom’s mood turned dark, and she vanished to her top bunk in our room deep in the barracks. I remember her snarling at me to turn off the lights when I got dressed up for dinner, in my favorite new skirt, plucked from a very nice bag of clothing donated the week before. 

We sat down for the glorious holiday meal; the staff let my mom keep to herself in our bedroom. When I rose to pass a dish, I felt a weird wet sensation when I sat back down. I ignored it. But as I ate, I realized I didn’t feel good. Thinking I was about to make more room for ham and scalloped potatoes, I grabbed a magazine and went to my favorite stall in the locker-room-style bathroom.

There, I discovered blood on my panties: Of all the days, in all the places, I had Become A Woman at a fucking homeless shelter on Christmas Day.

I wadded up toilet paper, as one does, tried to cover up the blood on my skirt by yanking my sweater down, and scooted down the hall to the barracks, where I tried to rouse my mother.

“Mom. MOM. I . . . I think I got my period.”

“Why?”

“Because there’s blood on my underwear.”

She told me where to find the tampons (a dispenser in the bathroom) and tried to explain how to insert one. I was horrified, but she just couldn’t get herself out of bed. I realize now, 25 years later, that she was full of sorrow, but I remember being so mad at her for not making my Special Moment a beautiful milestone.

Thankfully, the ladies of the shelter helped me through it. They mused that I probably didn’t need to learn how to use tampons on my very first period, and together with a staffer, we practiced sticking sanitary pads to underwear until I had turned a stack of undies into proper lady-diapers. Next, they showed me the secrets of the laundry room, so my donated skirt showed no signs of blood.

Since my mom was still resting, I even got to sit in the smoking room as the sky darkened, where no kids were usually allowed, and the black ladies taught me how to do my hair in ways my white mother never had. They sang Christmas songs in our smoky makeshift hair salon, and I felt safe.

I eventually fell asleep in a ball on the couch during a movie, until someone slapped my leg, which must have flailed a bit in my slumber. I sat up, groggy, cramped, and warm, and saw it was one of the more unpredictable and frightening residents, Irene, who was about 50 years old. Irene had stolen a brightly colored coat from me the week before from the same donation bag where I’d found my recently scrubbed period skirt. The staffers had convinced Mom and me that it was easier not to confront Irene over a children’s jacket; instead, they’d given me a new one that I hated. Truth be told, I missed my coat, and I was no fan of Irene.

I told her not to touch me as only a defiant preteen can, and she slapped my leg again, harder. I kicked her in response, and suddenly we were on the floor. As she slapped and hit me, I tried to dodge and fight back with the inefficiency you might expect from a nerdy kid. Worst of all, she was messing up my awesome French braid with swoopy, silky bangs.

I don’t know how long it lasted until my mom appeared in the common room, but suddenly, Irene was off of me, and my mom had her pinned to the floor as she pummeled her, until Irene stopped hitting back and just sighed in resignation.

We heard the staffers coming, and my mom left the scene. The other residents helped Irene up, and we all rushed to cover up all evidence of the scuffle.

I thought my mom would head to back to bed, but instead, she went to Irene’s room, where she grabbed my beloved jacket. She brought it to the Christmas tree, where the black ladies were crowded around me. She handed it to me, sat down on the couch, and then ate a fucking cookie.

The staffers never knew why Irene gave me the coat back, and I wore it for two winters before I outgrew it.

Best Christmas ever.

***

Lead image: flickr/OakleyOriginals

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