The four of us knelt side-by-side. Momma, Daddy, my younger sister, Faye, and me. We attended Mass every Sunday at Holy Rosary Catholic Church, like clockwork. One particular time, though, I experienced an epiphany, but not of the Holy Ghost.
I was a ten-year-old girl at the time, so I couldn't catch sight of the altar no matter how much I strained, nor could I understand the Latin the priest spoke. My knees hurt as I shifted from one to the other on the hard wooden kneelers. If I shuffled too much, Dad would encourage me with a wink and a smile.
Out of boredom, I turned to people-watching. That's when I spotted the woman in front of me wearing a see-through blouse. My cheeks flushed when I spied her bra under the sheer fabric. My eyes couldn't turn away. Cajun Catholics in Southwest Louisiana, lived by a strict moral code, especially regarding sex.
Despite temperatures above 100 degrees, sporting sleeveless blouses in church was a serious affront to God and a temptation to men. So, the Monseigneur stood at the entrance and stopped any woman he deemed unfit then tied white cotton handkerchiefs around the tops of their exposed arms.
So, I reasoned, letting your undergarment show must be an even bigger sin. The soft material of the lady's thin garment and the flow of the sleeves enchanted me. But will she burn in Hell?
Things got more sinful when she lifted her hand, adjusted her hat, and lowered her arm. The strap on her left shoulder slipped down and dangled in plain view. My temples pounded, and my face turned hot. Should I do something? Will someone tell her?
Until that point, I had lived the carefree life of a small-town tomboy. In an instant, my world expanded like a supernova to include the unfamiliar realm of feminine allure--ready or not.
After that, it seemed straps peeked at me from all directions. Even girls my age started wearing them at school. What if the boys spy them?
Soon, Mardi Gras arrived. My little sister and I donned specially designed gowns Momma had made for us. My red, floor-length dress had no sleeves, but instead, a wispy net shawl wrapped around my shoulders. I imagined being a grown-up when we walked into the decorated gymnasium.
Horrified, I discovered the girls flaunting their white bra straps. Why don't they hide them? On the contrary, many wore them with pride, like medals of honor. Not me. I shuddered and shelved the issue.
When the band started playing, I forgot the shame and moved to the rhythm. Songs like Ray Charles' What'd I Say, Bill Haley and His Comets' Rock Around the Clock, and Elvis, the King, Presley's, All Shook Up. Caught up in the moment, I shed my shoulder wrap and danced the night away--bra-less.
A few days after Carnival, though, Mom approached me with something white in her hand. Her best friend, Mrs. Flo, had taken note of my budding bosoms and declared my time had come. Her older daughter had one, and, I suppose, this made the woman an expert in Moma's eyes.
"Mrs. Flo thinks you're old enough for one." she said.
"What? Uh uh. I don't want to."
"It's a training bra. Come on, let's try it."
A training bra? Do they need to be trained?
She continued, "Besides, if she could tell you need one, couldn't others?" The logic of her statement stopped me. My whole body went hot, then cold while I considered: What would be worse? The undergarment showing or my breasts?
"But still, I don't want to," I said, wiping moisture from my eyes. After all, I ran faster, threw farther, and batted better than many of the boys in the neighborhood. My mother continued to coax, though, until I gave up. After fastening the back, she sat back and admired the sight.
My moods whisked back-and-forth like a mouse trying to cling to a tiger's tail. Hot tears rolled down my face. "I hate it," I heard myself say. And, I yanked the lacy noose from my chest. Before she could grab me, I darted out, grabbed my bike and pedaled away, deciding to deal with this like Scarlet O'Hara--another day.
At school, it seemed everyone chattered about nothing else: Whose breasts blossomed fastest, who chose padded bras, and who went without.
Please God, save me.
Matters only got worse, though, when boys started snapping the backs of the taboo garments. The girls feigned embarrassment, and the guys laughed with gusto. Me? I stuck my head in the sand.
One winter morning, a seemingly unrelated event took place. As Faye and I lay in bed half-asleep, Dad roused us by rubbing an orange, sliced in two halves, on our cheeks. The aroma of the fresh fruit made me open my eyes. "Wake up, sleepyheads."
I lifted myself to my elbows and lowered my feet to the floor. He grinned at us and pointed to the window. I squinted. It took a while to register the rarest of rare sights in the South--snow. We sat wide-eyed now, noses pressed to the panes, watching the magic float down, blanketing the landscape in a dreamy, white glaze that looked like cake icing.
"It's snowing!" Faye shouted.
Daddy smiled at his wife when she came into the room, holding our new brother, Joey.
"Can we go out?" I pleaded.
"Well, since school's out...." He couldn't finish before we lunged for the door.
"Wait, you need coats and warm clothes," Mamma called after us.
She finished bundling my nine-month-old new sibling in a yellow quilted jumpsuit, handed him off to Dad, and the fellows disappeared through the front door.
While Faye and I dressed, Mom pulled me aside and whispered, "You'd be a lot warmer if you put something extra under your clothes."
"How about a bra? Nobody but you and I will know," she promised with a gleam in her eye. To my surprise, I agreed, partly because I liked the excitement of sharing a secret, or I just didn't want to waste time arguing. After helping me fasten it, we heaped two shirts, a sweater, and a coat on top--no chance of any boys spotting these babies. And, I set off for the front yard.
We hurled snowballs, made a snowman the same height as Joey, and took pictures of him talking to Frosty. At first, I focussed on the novelty of the snow. But, as the day wore on, I accepted another novelty--the one under my clothing. For the first time, my neck didn't flush as I gave in to my first, tender inklings of womanhood.