Contents: July/August 2002
Rite of Passage
One mother's quest to welcome her daughter to womanhood
by Maryann Woods-Murphy
Melynda is twelve years old and seven months a woman. Her time came just before Christmas and my fortieth birthday. I gasped when I heard her telephone message from school: "Guess what?" she shrieked. "I have my period!"
We had all been waiting for this moment, this vivid declaration of physical and psychological change. The blood was proof positive of my daughter's new womanhood. All afternoon I felt a primordial urge to celebrate her complicity with nature with the women of my clan, to gather around me the bones and ashes of my dead mother and grandmothers, to howl to the moon, to fling myself naked into the sea, arms outstretched to the universe, screaming: "I present the universe with this innocent baby woman, newborn to the moon tides, bursting with . . ." And then she came home from school.
"Mom, do you like gold or plum-wine nail polish better?"
"What?" The image of my chanting shaman mother self, presenting her goddess daughter to the four corners of the universe, shattered. "Plum," I responded. "Gold is too tacky.
"Some time before this year is over, I'd like to celebrate your new womanhood."
"Oh, Mom, you don't want to have a period party or some weird thing, do you?"
"No, nothing embarrassing. I just feel proud that you are a woman today. That connects you to me and to your grandmother and to all of the women in our family."
"Is this going to be a long conversation? I really want to talk to you about what school clothes I'm gonna buy."
That was seven months ago. As I write this, we are in Salamanca, Spain. Fifteen years earlier, when my husband Joe and I were newlyweds, we lived in Spain for four years while working as English teachers. Since that golden time, we have managed to visit Spain only once, when Melynda was a toddler. Ten long years have passed since we've been able to see the people who became our amigos de siempre, "forever friends." There is only one week left before we must return to New Jersey.
While walking down a cobblestone promenade near the twelfth-century cathedral, Melynda turned and said:
"So, when are we going to do that period thing? Camping on a mountain or whatever you were talking about."
"Whenever you want. So, do you feel like doing it?"
"Yeah, but just you and me. Nobody can be there."
"Yes. I know a perfect little town where we can go."
We continued our stroll without any more discussion of the rite of passage. "She brought it up," I thought. "Cool!"
When we said good-bye to my husband and son, Melynda's dad was elated for us and seemed to trust our instincts.
Melynda and I set off with a small green nylon dome-tent and a cornflower blue sky. I slipped my arm around Melynda's like I had seen so many Spanish women do while strolling down the street. She didn't flinch or pull away. My heart leapt for joy, but I kept quiet. This much I had learned: With an adolescent you take these gifts as they grace you and you ask no questions.
"It's finally happening," I thought. "Now what do I do?"
Whatever the outcome, this would be our journey, a pilgrimage into what being a woman was about, but I wasn't sure how to get there. My mother and grandmothers were dead and the stories had been lost to me. I was alone with a twelve-year-old kid, a flimsy shelter, and a few thousand pesetas.
"Shouldn't we buy some stuff?" Melynda asked as we passed a shop that sold everything from lace to copper pipes.
"Have you got candles?" I asked the proprietor, an old woman. She pulled her gray knit sweater to a more comfortable position on her ample hips and walked slowly to a wooden cabinet with dozens of small unmarked drawers. She pulled out a bunch of white tapers strung together with a waxy string. We bought five candles and a throw-away lighter with an image of the cathedral. Next door, we found a few links of chorizo sausage, bread of the day, apples, pears, and Valencia oranges. Melynda grabbed a juicy pear from our sack and bit into it hard.
I took a big one, not worrying about the pear juice running down my chin.
"Oh God, Mom. That's gross!"
On the bus to the village of Sequeros, Melynda cuddled close. The burgundy curtains made shadows that caressed the contours of my sleeping maiden's face. She groaned in her sleep as the bus curved into the bends of the mountain.
The landscape's colors were burnt orange with shoots of rough green fighting their way through the uncooperative earth. This was a world that hadn't changed much in centuries: ancient trails through valleys carved out of solemn mountains, the odd house on a precarious ledge. Watching lulled me into such a sound sleep that I was shocked awake by our abrupt stop in Sequeros.
My friend Ana's mother, Paquita, was standing by the roadside, waving, surrounded by her sisters, cousins, and neighbors. She was just as I remembered her: black wool widow's dress, thick waist, short gray-sprinkled hair, and eyes like little blue flames. Melynda was not really awake and stumbled as we exited the bus. I rushed into Paquita's arms. It was a mother hug that she gave me and I needed it. My own mother died when I was pregnant with Melynda and it had been years since I felt so embraced. My knees felt weak and my heart beat like a baby rabbit's.
Melynda was passed from woman to woman, each stepping back to admire her. None of them had seen her since she was fifteen months old; they remembered her playing with mud and stones in their cooking pots. I looked down the street and saw the curved terra cotta tiles on the roofs, the balconies heavy with flowers, and the old men straddling oak stools on the cobblestones. I heard the sound of water gushing in the ancient Roman fountains, children playing, dogs barking.
Ana had phoned ahead to discuss our plans with her mom. She'd told her that Melynda and I needed some time alone on the mountain and that nobody was to disturb us. Paquita seemed to understand but couldn't resist meeting us and personally bringing us up to the stone hermitage to find the best spot to pitch our tent.
At the top of the hill men in black berets appeared, as if called by a silent cue from nowhere, and began to erect the tiny dome-tent. They pulled and pushed, connecting cords to tree branches and then deciding against it, arguing about the way the sun would fall on the tent windows, chiding each other for foolish choices.
Finally, I stepped forward and said, "This is good. We like it just here." After the men left, Paquita's sister, La Tia Carmen, handed us some pillows and embroidered blankets. The women buzzed with chatter and finally left us alone. We stood silently, watching the sun set. We looked at each other searching for answers.
The aroma of ham and garlic boiling with cabbage and carrots wafted up to us over the rooftops.
"I'm starving!" Melynda said. "Do we have anything in the bag besides fruit?"
We sat on sharp boulders near the tent and dove in like vultures, stuffing our mouths with wads of bread and chunks of cheese, washing it down with gulps of water. After we had satiated the gnawing in our bellies, we wiped our hands on our dirty jeans. "Let's walk," I said.
We put on extra sweaters and started down the steep country road. It hugged the mountain and gave us a magnificent view of the lights in the thirty-two villages in the valley below. Melynda and I talked about nails and hairstyles and what it would have been like to grow up here so that we could call these mountains our own.
Our conversation was cut short by a low, unfamiliar animal sound. The village woman had warned us of wild boars and the dangers of the night. We turned around and headed back up the hill in the gathering darkness. We felt watched by a thousand pairs of eyes. Our hearts pounded in our chests.
The night had fallen like a black curtain when we got back to our flimsy shelter. The moist chill in the air was finding our flesh under the layered clothing. We got into the tent and nestled into the flannel sleeping bags.
"Now what, ma?" Melynda asked, sitting with her own sleeping bag up to her neck.
"Let's eat a little more and then light our candles to the mothers and grandmothers."
There were some things that seemed right to me at that moment, things I just knew. If you had asked me weeks before what it was that I would be seeking on this mountaintop in Spain, I would not have had an answer. I knew only that I was on a journey, a passage that had the feeling of ancient ways. I had a sense of being open to creation, of being a part of something that came before me and would continue on till the end of humankind. I had faith that the words and the way would come if I searched in earnest. I also knew there was power in this mountain, power in this village, and power in my relationship with my daughter.
We pulled out the sausage, bread, and fruit. We ate sitting on the tent floor wrapped in sleep sacks, poking our arms out whenever we needed to grab something to eat. This was awkward, but the rustic food was comforting and the very act of eating and talking warmed us. We ate much more than we normally would have, ripping bread with our hands and savoring the sharply seasoned chorizo. Pears, apples, and oranges helped us wash the dry food down, and the cool water was refreshing. We could hear the growling of javeli, or wild boars, outside.
"It's time to light the candles to the mothers and grandmothers," I said. Just saying these words seemed to drive the night's chill from my bones.
Melynda was silent, but her eyes never left mine. We removed the candles from our sack and separated the wicks. I opened the nylon doorway of the tent and felt a surprising gust of night wind. The stars were poised and waiting. Melynda and I crouched, leaned out the green door flap with our upper bodies, and set to work.
First, I made a small circle in the earth with our only spoon. Next we made four holes for our candles around the circle. We put candles in the holes and secured them by packing dirt up on the sides.
"Let's light them," said Melynda, her face glowing in the moonlight.
I grabbed the lighter.
"I light this candle to invite the spirit and strength of my mother to help guide this young woman as she comes of age, that she will grow wise, strong, and compassionate."
The candle flickered in the breeze. Melynda cupped her hands around it for protection. I moved my hand to the second candle.
"I light this candle to invite the spirit and strength of the grandmothers to help guide this young woman as she comes of age, that she will grow wise, strong, and compassionate. Let her know on this night the secrets of womanhood so that her knowledge of herself will guide her on life's difficult journey."
Again, the candle flickered. The boars moaned in the distant rocks. I was now ready to light the third candle.
"I light this candle to invite the spirit of our community of women, the teachers, the neighbors, the friends. Let their strength and wisdom guide and protect her as she comes of age so that she will know that there are many whose strength she can rely on when the road becomes difficult and her limbs grow weary."
The flames cast dancing shadows on the circle while brightening the entryway to our tent. The sky and stars felt inexplicably closer, more protective than distant, more kin than foe. I lit the final candle.
"I light this candle to invite the spirit of this mother and daughter to let their strength and wisdom be known to each other. I light this candle in a spirit of hope that their relationship will grow and deepen with the years. May they learn from each other and respect each other now and throughout all the changes of their lives. Let all the spirits come!"
Melynda and I cradled our hands together in a protective circle around the four candles. The wind beat against the backs of our hands, but we were able to protect the flames for a minute more: four kitchen candles burning outside a cheap dome-tent, a mother and adolescent daughter reaching out to protect the flames they have lit together. We nodded to each other and blew out the candles, after nodding to each other, our eyes wide and our cheeks flushed with excitement. We removed the candles from the soil, packed them away, and zipped ourselves back into the tent. Our hands were stiff from being exposed to the night air and a chill ran through us both.
"Now what?" Melynda asked.
"Now, we talk, all night if you like. Now, you ask me any questions in your head about me, about your body, about my relationship with your father, about my mother . . . Anything."
"Anything?" she said, looking up, dead serious.
"Anything," I responded, without fear.
We talked till the morning light started to warm the tent walls. She asked me questions and I answered with an open heart, using the best words I could. We talked about her body, mine, my mother's, the rough words she had heard her father and me speak years before, her fears about them, the truth, the truth without fear, without disguise. Melynda spoke of her life as well, of being a girl in middle school, the pressures, fears, and desires. I listened to everything she said without flinching, somehow strengthened by the space we had created and by the spirits of the ancestral women we had invoked. We talked until there was no more to say or to ask and we fell asleep, clinging to each other with a newfound innocence, knowledge, and shared strength.
We slept a good part of the morning and woke up with a light film of sweat. I could hear my husband and son calling our names outside.
We got up hastily. Six-year-old Joe wanted to come into the tent to play, but I sent him off with his dad after giving him a big hug and kiss.
"Tell Ana and Paquita we'll be right down."
Melynda and I packed our tent and gear and carried everything down to Ana's house. Paquita, the neighbors, and daughters-in-law greeted us with food and hot vegetable broth. It felt so cozy to be inside. We sat at the long table happy to be together with our dear friends.
"We were wondering if you would like us to dress Melynda as a serrana today," Paquita said. "Everything is ready. My granddaughter Soraya is dancing at the festival this summer and I have just cleaned the dress, the apron, and the socks. We thought it would be a nice experience for Melynda." Paquita's face was confident, but I knew that Melynda would need more explanation.
"Tell Melynda what you mean. I think she would like it."
"Every town has a traditional dress," Paquita explained in Spanish. "This area is a sierra. The serranas, our mountain village women, have a dress that we wear at special times. It has many layers, and is a bit complicated to put on, but it would be fun for us to dress you, Melynda, since you are now growing up."
Melynda looked at me and Paquita, her dad's beaming face, her restless little brother, who was rolling a cork between his fingers, and the neighbors and family members. She blushed a bit, but agreed to let the women dress her up.
Paquita ran up to the fourth floor of her narrow house to pull out the embroidered white blouse and shirts from the wooden trunks in the spare room. Ana went to the side table where the velvet apron had already been laid out. Five women hurried upstairs. Melynda looked at me.
"Ma, I'm nervous. What are they going to do to me? What should I do?"
"Just let them dress you, honey. Just let them dress you."
After about ten minutes, Melynda and I were called upstairs. Paquita and Ana started to help her out of her jeans and T-shirt, not waiting for permission. Melynda let them do it without a fuss. I stood by, watching. Paquita and Ana lifted the embroidered slip up for Melynda to see. In a second it was over her head and on. Next came the beautifully decorated blouses, each with a special design with a story to tell, and finally, the vest and apron, whose band was wrapped around Melynda's waist several times. The women of Sequeros were slowly transforming my daughter into a serrana before my eyes.
To complete her look, the women slipped woven socks and small shoes on her feet. They pulled Melynda back from them and looked at each other. "Her hair needs doing."
Five women pulled Melynda's hair out of its ponytail and began to comb it out, wrapping it and twisting it carefully into large braided buns. After the buns were in place, the women adorned her hair with small golden buttons, typical of Salamanca, called botón charro.
When the women looked at Melynda again, they chatted some more and agreed that she was still not right. "She needs more gold," someone said.
Wedding rings came off and lined my daughter's fingers. Bracelets found their way to her arms, earrings dangled from her ears, and necklaces hung heavy from her neck. Not satisfied, the women took jewelry from carved wooden boxes from mothers and grandmothers long gone to adorn Melynda with their finery as well.
She was ready at last: my daughter, twelve years old and seven months a woman, teetering in the stiff shoes, laden with our friends' most precious jewelry and their most ancient clothing. Paquita directed Melynda to a long, gold-edged mirror so that she might admire herself as a true serrana.
Melynda looked. Behind her she could see me and the village women who had gathered to dress her for womanhood. My eyes misted over, grateful for these women who had somehow understood what I had come to Sequeros, Spain, to find. I knew then that the spirits of all the mothers, grandmothers, and kin whom I had invoked the night before would continue to help me guide this new woman on her journey.
Maryann Woods-Murphy teaches Spanish at Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, New Jersey, where she also serves as advisor to the school's Multicultural Task Force. She is a member of the Central Unitarian Church in Paramus, New Jersey.