A Touchy Subject

Small towns can be intimate in ways you might not expect.

Jane Sanders Illustration

“Always wear nice underwear, because you never know when you might be in a car accident.”

Oh, how I once chuckled at that classic gem of motherly advice. What were the chances, I reasoned – whenever my underwear drawer got down to dregs – that I would wind up in an accident that day that resulted in strangers seeing my ratty lingerie? Hey, I drive defensively. I get the good drivers’ discount. Besides, if I were involved in a bad wreck, would wardrobe malfunctions really be one of my more pressing concerns?

As life would have it, I was involved in a fairly serious highway collision about 14 years ago. It totaled my car but miraculously left me with nothing worse than a fractured foot that I ignored for weeks. Afterward, my husband drove our 6-month-old and me to the emergency room only because I wanted to make absolutely sure our baby was OK. (He was.) Not a single stranger saw my undies.

In the end, then, it was no car wreck that changed my mind about intimate apparel. No, I have two decades of life in a small town to thank for that.
When practically every professional who sees you in a state of undress is somebody you also know socially or personally, underwear matters. At the same time, one must abandon any foolish notions of pride or privacy one had previously entertained.

Medical care in a small town is not for the demure.    

Our family doctor is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. I first met Mark, a member of my future husband’s social circle, at a party in his swimming pool. This was long before I moved here from Atlanta to marry Harvey. Mark and Harvey had known each other and each other’s families most of their lives. Mark’s younger brother and sister were among Harvey’s closest friends growing up. Mark and his wife, Holly, came to our wedding in Birmingham. And on and on.

You might assume that having a longtime friendship with your family doctor would be one of the major perks of a small-town lifestyle. You would be correct in every way except one: the part where I have to take my clothes off. Stripping down in front of a stranger I see for 10 minutes once a year? No biggie. Hey, I’ve had two babies. I’m a hardened professional when it comes to abandoning all dignity in front of a roomful of people I’ve never met before. But, please. Don’t ask me to go topless in front of my husband’s buddy.

Fortunately, I have so far been blessed with excellent health and, in some two decades as Mark’s patient, have never had to remove anything more humiliating than my shoes. Should I ever develop some life-threatening condition that requires major disrobing, I would probably have to find another doctor or just go home and get my affairs in order. (Switching to one of Mark’s partners, whom we also know in private life, wouldn’t solve a thing.)

This naturally raises the question of how a prude like me handles the whole gynecologist thing in a small town. That one is easy. We don’t have a gynecologist – unless something has changed recently. All we have are visiting gynecologists from larger, surrounding towns who periodically stop here like circuit-riding preachers of the old West. (There’s a joke about stirrups in that somewhere.) If you don’t get to see the doctor the day he’s in town, you have to see him at his real office 30 or 40 miles away. Having an out-of-town gynecologist is a little inconvenient, but at least I don’t have to worry about meeting him on every aisle of the grocery store.

I did, however, make the mistake of letting my roving ob-gyn perform a minor “female procedure” right here at our hometown hospital. The procedure went fine. My regret is that I have no idea who all in this town has seen me knocked out in a blue shower cap, mouth agape, drooling and half-naked in one of the most unflattering positions imaginable.

If a few surgical nurses were all I had to worry about, I would be in good shape. But – wouldn’t you know – the one and only mammogram tech at the hospital is also a close friend. Shannon’s son and my son are buds. Our families have bonded over school and sports. She and I play pokeno with a small group of women every month.    

Having a pal do your mammogram is a lot like having a friend for a family doctor. It’s great right up until the moment you have to whip those puppies out. The way I see it, having your bosoms smashed between glass plates like so much biscuit dough is unpleasant enough without getting friends and loved ones involved. The fewer witnesses, the better.

When all was said and done, however, I had to admit my girlfriend gives one great mammogram. It was painless in every sense of the word. Well, there was that one weird moment when I realized that her 13-year-old son –  my son’s friend – was gazing upon my nudity from a photo on her desk and  Shannon had to turn the picture the other way. Apart from that, I emerged unscathed.

There is one more friend-slash-professional in town who has not yet seen me in a compromised capacity, but I know the day is coming. Alex is my younger son’s baseball coach. His son and my son are big friends, teammates and classmates. His daughter and my older son are classmates and friends. We are close to Alex and his wife.
Alex also works at the local funeral home preparing the departed for burial.

I do believe this one worries me the most. There is simply no way to safeguard your reputation when you are dead. What if I expire after a long, incapacitating illness with awful-looking toenails or hairy underarms or gray roots or unsightly chin whiskers my family did not pluck despite my repeated instructions about what to do in the event of a coma? And what of modesty? I threaten Alex all the time that he better not look under that sheet when they bring me in for my final makeover.

On the bright side, at least I know I will be in the hands of an old, trusted friend. Two other certainties give me comfort: I will be utterly unaware of how embarrassed I am, and I will be wearing nice underwear.

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