A recent visit from my sister Eleanor unleashed a horde of memories, pleasant and less so; since she is eleven years my junior, her experience of “the fam,” as my brother Eleanor called it, was different, but there was one experience we shared: the horror we felt when we saw the nameless orange bag that hung on the back of our mother’s bathroom door.
What was that thing?
What was its use and purpose?
Of course, since it was hanging in her bathroom, scene of many of our punishments, we knew better than to ask.
But that thing—its hideous shade of orange, and especially the long black tube, as threatening as it was mysterious, that capped its orange cord…
Now we speculate: did our mother, between the births of her five children, use the douche as an attempt birth control?
I don’t think so.
Rather—even more sinister—the douche bag bore witness to her horror of the female body, with its hidden recesses and shaming secretions; to the need, general at that time, to cleanse, purify, and empty out the wretch vessel of fecundity and dubious desire; perhaps to get rid, once and for all, of the very essence of femaleness, which seemed to both of us the thwarted purpose of her admired, privileged life.
Those bags are less conspicuously displayed in modern drugstores, although they are certainly hidden under some counter. Instead, we are assailed with all kinds of perfumes, insertions, and disinfectants, which seem to depend for their popularity on the same dismal belief in the basic unworthiness of the female body.
I had one more encounter, years later, with the dreaded douche. My aunt, a woman of the world, inserted one in my “going away” luggage the day of my first marriage, indicating to me, with mysterious nods and smiles, that a present of some sort awaited me among the lacey lingerie (in my grandmother’s fiction always depicted as “snowy”), the hand-made Italian shoes, the linen suits suitable for an Italian honeymoon. When I unearthed it, I felt that my past had followed me in the form of a grotesque snake.
I hope I threw the thing out in the first hotel wastebasket I encountered. But its threat lingers, as we know today when girls starve or bloat themselves, cut their arms, or sacrifice their skins to tattoos: the old horror of the natural female body, reappearing like some monster from the deep, in every generation.