The four of us knelt side-by-side. Momma, Daddy, my younger sister, and me. Our family 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 in 1957, 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, Momma would shoot the Evil Eye, but Dad would encourage me with a wink and a smile.
Bored, 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.
For instance, Mom told us how, despite temperatures above 100 degrees, wearing 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 fit to. Turning to a nearby table piled with white cotton handkerchiefs, he would pick up two and tie one atop each of the woman's 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 would she burn in Hell?
Things got more sinful, though, 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? Should I tell her?
Until that point, I 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.
Now, straps peeked at me from all directions. Even girls my age now had one on 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 ballroom.
Horrified, I discovered the girls baring their white bands for all to see. Why didn't they hide them? On the contrary, many flaunted them with pride, like medals of honor. Not me. I shuddered and shelved the issue.
Happy for the distraction, 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 her eyes.
"Mrs. Flo thinks you're old enough for a bra," she said.
"No, 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?"
But she continued, "Besides, if Mrs. Flo could tell you need one, couldn't others?" The logic of her statement stopped me in my tracks. My whole body got hot, cold, and hot again, while I considered: What would be worse? My bra showing or my breasts showing?
"But still, I don't want to," I said wiping moisture from my eyes. I ran faster, threw farther, and batted better than many of the boys in the neighborhood, after all. My mother continued to coax, though, until I gave up and tried one on. After fastening the back, she sat back and admired the view.
My moods whisked back-and-forth like a mouse trying to cling to a tiger's tail. "I hate it," I heard myself say.
Hot tears rolled down my face, and I yanked the lacy noose from my chest. 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: Who's chest blossomed more than others, who wore padded bras, and who wore none.
Yikes! 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 we lay in bed half asleep, Dad roused my sister, Faye and me by rubbing an orange, sliced in two halves, on our cheeks. The aroma of the fresh fruit made me open my eyes. "Wake up, sleepy heads."
I rubbed my eyes, lifted myself to my elbows, and lowered my feet to the floor. He grinned at us and pointed outside. I squinted then peered through the window. It took us 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.
Daddy smiled at his wife when she came in the room holding our new brother, Joey.
"Can we go out?”
"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 jump suit, 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 have a clue," she promised with a gleam in her eye. To my surprise, I agreed, possibly 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. In the moment, I focussed on the novelty of the snow, but, as the day went 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.
by Connie Hebert