Monday, August 1, 2011

The Slap

Among the many stories my mother-in-law told me about her life as the oldest daughter of Slovak immigrants homesteading in a sod house in North Dakota in the early 1900s, was the one about how she found blood on her underwear one day when she was about thirteen. Mary was terrified that she was deathly ill and spent some time in great anxiety before deciding to tell her mother. Instead of reassuring her daughter that this was entirely normal and was the start of her menstrual periods, her mother slapped her! Apparently this was some sort of custom for Slovak women with their daughters, who usually arrived at this major event with no idea of what was happening.

Her next younger sister found out ahead of time what to expect from Mary or school friends. When it was her turn, she didn't say anything to her mother. When her mother found a bucket of rags soaking in her bedroom one day and asked what it was for, the younger sister said, "You know what it is." Period (pun intended!).

Kids weren't told anything about where babies came from, either. Mary said that being around farm animals let farm kids see how things were done with them, but often didn't make the connection with their parents or other people. She was 11 years old when she realized that her mother was showing signs of pregnancy, but it was never spoken of. On the night the youngest sister was born that year, she heard her parents talking in their bedroom (the only bedroom) while their 3 daughters slept on mattresses on the floor of the main room. Her mother asked the father, "What is it?" and her father answered, "Another girl." Then they talked about the small tear in the kitchen screen door - that the tear should be made bigger so that the girls could be told that the stork brought the baby. Mary listened to all this and said nothing to her parents about it the next day when the baby was produced for all to see.

Now I'm reading Miriam's Kitchen which has recipes and stories of Jewish life in America and in Eastern Europe. Imagine my surprise when I came to this page (205):

In my grandmother's house in Brooklyn, in the bedroom in which I slept, there was a painted dresser. One drawer of the dresser held pale blue sanitary napkins, year after year.

These came in handy one year. Visiting, I got my first period - far from my mother, who had remained in Detroit to study for college exams.

I confided in my grandmother. She smacked my face.

I looked to her for a reason. I saw an ironic, apologetic little smile, heard a caught breath that might have been a decimal place's worth of secret amusement or inner regret.

She said: "Now you'll always have rosy cheeks," then went looking for a contraption, elastic and clips.

I knew this slap came out of the past, and she was just doing her duty. I sensed that her investment was less than complete. The smack was not painful, yet burned on my cheek like guilt, like innocence - something she felt was fitting, and I knew was unjust.

Later I stumbled on written words parsing that shtetl gesture. Thus mother warned daughter, time out of mind, not to compete for the father's attentions; thus mother taught daughter the shame of Eve. I may have been the last in my line to be punished in advance for sexual sins, mine and those of every mortal woman.
Mary was not Jewish, but Poland and Lithuania, where Miriam's people came from, were not far from Slovakia. I doubt her mother gave it any more thought than that it was what you did for your daughter, as it had been done to you. And Mary was the last in her line to be slapped.


  1. Wow! That's the first I have heard of this particular custom. I'm glad it has fallen away but it is still very interesting!

  2. I've never heard of this either. I'll have to ask my Latvian-born friend Ilze if that was the custom there.


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