in recent years

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back to school with judy blume: are you there, god? it’s me, margaret.

It’s not my original, but it’s the exact edition. It even feels the same. Gawd bless the internet. Gawd bless compulsive vintage buyers. Gawd bless Etsy.

Dear Judy Blume,

I don’t remember a time before Margaret. This isn’t saying much, really, since I can’t really remember much of anything from any period of my life, regardless of age or importance. I remember getting high for the first time and the first boner I ever saw, though, so I guess there are some things that last. Regardless, I don’t remember a time before Margaret and even if it isn’t saying much, it’s saying something.

I must’ve read it for the first time around eight or nine, maybe even younger, and I have the vague feeling that my paternal grandmother gave me that mythical first copy that I was so intent on owning again. I have the vaguest memories — as ethereal as smoke or steam, impossible to grasp — of reading about Margaret on the patio of my grandparents’ vacation home in San Diego. They’re insubstantial memories, but what little I can grasp makes me very warm and very glad.

Part of that quest to own this very particular copy was because I knew they’d changed the book from belted pads to the adhesive strips of the modern era and though the change was made and approved by you, the thought of rereading it with the wrong kind of period supplies unsettled and alarmed me. I grew up on adhesive pads. I’ve heard stories from my very enthusiastic and delighted mother that as a little kid, desperate to emulate my much older sister, I used to put those adhesive pads on upside down. I still use adhesive pads! They’re terrible! But still better than the hooked belt that I desperately feared before my own period finally came. I needed to reread those belted Teenage Softies. I needed to cringe and remember.

And, lord, Ms. Blume, did I remember. What I remembered about Margaret was plentiful: the Teenage Softies and the Learning About Your Body movie that was really an ad for sanitary supplies (the Private Lady of Margaret’s New Jersey was the Always of my Los Angeles suburb), the party at Norman Fishbein’s and loafers with no socks, the weird anticipatory terror of waiting for your first period and how badly you wanted it to happen already.

I got my first period in sixth grade on March 12, 1997. I was at school and had just been abandoned by my friends during lunch recess because they were being dicks for whatever reason that twelve year old girls are often dicks. I walked into our classroom where they were sitting, threw my jacket down, and huffed out of the room. Gawd bless me for this adolescent drama because one of my friends followed me into the bathroom to see if I was okay. I had just sat down to discover bloody underwear. I had just turned twelve. And, thankfully, that friend was able to save me because my wonderful sixth grade teacher (Mrs. Hoeger! One of my biggest life heroes.) had stashed a box of pads in our Earthquake Preparedness Trash Barrel. She covertly stashed it in her jean shorts and returned with four other girls who were so excited. I learned I was one of the last. This still gives me weird flashbacks of adolescent anxiety. Ms. Blume, you really, really nailed that one.

I remembered, vividly, “I must, I must, I must increase my bust.” I remembered it from my childhood reading of Margaret and I remembered it from my week of hazing/induction to the Alcyonians, the girls service club at my high school. I remembered, acutely, standing on the stage outside of my gym adjacent to the quad, a sign around my neck declaring my name and things I liked alongside a glittery butterfly and screaming at the top of my lungs with a dozen or so other girls, “I MUST, I MUST, I MUST INCREASE MY BUST. THE BIGGER THE BETTER, THE TIGHTER THE SWEATER, THE MORE THE BOYS WILL LIKE ME.” Some things are enduring. The horror of adolescence is one of them. Margaret is proof of that, I think.

The things I didn’t remember before rereading are the things that I now realize were probably the most important to me — simmering low, just under the surface, and shaping me while I was identifying with Margaret’s waiting-for-her-period woes: the religion stuff.

I honestly actively remembered nothing about the premise of the book. I’d long ago forgotten that Margaret’s story begins with her exile from New York City and into suburban New Jersey and with that, I’d also forgotten about her family’s lack of religion and her distress over whether she’d join the Y or the Jewish Community Center.

I was pretty confused religiously as a kid. Well, less confused and more apathetic. I was raised areligiously. I hung out at the Methodist church with my best friend and watched her get baptized and took communion once — it was pita bread dipped in grapeseed oil and that shit was delicious — and was mostly there for the teen group activities — broom ball! watching the grunion run! madcap scavenger hunts through two counties! — but I never had that Moment, the one that Margaret was looking for, the one that I think a lot of people go to church in search of. Margaret’s relationship with God is one that I empathized with as a kid and I respect as an adult, even though I was never able to form something similar. I became an atheist at 13, but Margaret’s relationship with God is one I’d wish on anyone. It’s so healthy. And I remember, now, her religious identity being very comforting to me as a youth — I wasn’t anything either! And neither was my family. And the Simons helped to let me know that nothing was a perfectly okay thing to be, no matter the pressures exerted on you for it.

Lest you think this letter is all about me, Ms. Blume, I want to tell you that I felt as much pleasure reading this book as an adult as I did as a kid. It was warm and it was refreshing and it was honest. It brought back so many familiar heartaches — the first time you realize a friend has lied to you! the first time you do something terrible and realize it immediately! the desperate desire to not seem weird! — and it reminded me of how much being a voracious reader in my youth made me want to write. A reminder I really and truly needed.

So thank you from the bottom of my heart for this one, Ms. Blume — Judy! We must be friends by this point, yes? You know all about my period! — because it helped me so much back then and it’s made me feel so much again now. Young girls and young women are reading this book still and finding a truth they desperately need: you are not alone.

– Ash

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