Katie O’Mally raced down the wide wooden steps with a pack of giggling 12 year old girls trailing behind her, threw open the bathroom door and promptly lifted up her blouse. There it was, the first training bra in the fifth grade at Sacred Heart Middle School, a white beauty with a tiny blue satin bow perched in the middle. We all took a good look.
“My mom and I are shopping on Saturday,” said Maria Amarato, who was apparently next in line in this transition to adulthood. Fascinated, envious, and worried, I watched the scene unfold from the periphery.
I knew my mom would not be taking me shopping for a bra, would not acknowledge my changing body. We were not a normal family in that way. Conversations about the maturation process were avoided. Whether my parents were too shy or too damaged or had some other rational, I still don’t understand. But it was our way, and there was no changing it.
Meanwhile, I had a problem. To fit in, I needed a bra. Even if I couldn’t model it like the other girls, at least I needed the tell tale straps under my top.
It was a problem I had been anticipating. I had seen bras turn up one by one on the older girls at school the previous year, and I knew my time was coming. For months, I had kept my eye out for a garment that might work, a bra at a neighborhood garage sale or some fluke encounter that would land one in my dresser drawer. Katie’s big moment thrust the problem into real time and my urgency to find a solution reached a new peak.
I rode the city bus home that day desperate for solutions. The truth was that I didn’t need a bra; none of us did. We were all flat chested and had a year or so to go before any of us would have an actual anatomical need. But of course, there was more to it than that. There was the signal to ourselves and the world that we were growing up, becoming women. Someday we would be using deodorant and wearing perfume, shaving our legs and wearing panty hose. It all started with a training bra.
Looking out the bus window, I felt the powerlessness of having no money or access to stores, and even if I had, I would have been too embarrassed to shop for a bra on my own.
With the new urgency that Katie imposed, I decided I could make my own bra. I’d use elastic from the waistband of an old pair of pants and white fabric from something no one would miss, a pillow case or the bottom of a sheet. I started to think about how assemble the pieces I would need, but even my 11 year old optimistic self could discern that this solution had serious drawbacks.
In that moment, I remembered the trunk of Halloween costumes and hand-me-downs that we kept in our basement. Whenever my East Coast cousins sent their used clothes to our family, the leftovers went there.
The trunk itself must have been nearly a hundred years old. My great grandparents had brought it over from Ireland with their twelve children when they landed at Ellis Island. It still had butcher paper lining under the lid, crunchy and yellow, and if you didn’t hold the lid open, it would slam down on your fingers while you pawed through its contents.
I went to the basement a time when the house was empty, something that didn’t happen often in our bustling household. The basement was the domain of my four brothers, and it looked and smelled like boys. Generally I avoided it.
The musty smell greeted me as I opened the lid and the damp met my nose. Quickly I rifled through the trunk, scavenging for anything that might work. At last I found a short white t-shirt with spaghetti straps. Those straps, under my white polyester blend school blouse, could certainly pass for a bra. I was thrilled. I stuffed it under my skirt and ran upstairs to the bathroom to put it on in front of the mirror, then put my school blouse over it.
From the back, I marveled to see the straps of what looked like a bra underneath my blouse. The problem was that from the front, the fabric went all the way up to my neck so that it looked like I was wearing a t-shirt under my top.
I took the ensemble back off and went to the kitchen for a piece of string and a scissors. There I found a blue twist tie from a loaf of bread and raced back to my project.
Back in the bathroom, I cut the bottom half off the t-shirt so that the edge just skirted my breast line. Then I took the twist tie and cinched the cleavage area so that two cups were formed, just like a real bra.
I tried it on again. The wire from the twist tie rubbed against my skin, but it would work.
That night, side by side at the sink with my mom doing dishes, I wore my new bra for the first time, a personal milestone in my own private walk toward womanhood.