Marion Agnew

Nulliparous, 1959. Medical Latin. From nulli-, stem of nullus, “no” + –para, fem. of parus, from parere “to bring forth.” Not + a woman brings forth. A woman who hasn’t given birth.

* 0 *

Clickety clickety clack. My family physician peers at me from under her bangs, fingers still flying on her keyboard.


“Dead.” My voice is flat. “She was 83. In 2000. Alzheimer’s Disease. Well, pneumonia, but you know.”

I’m just there for a checkup. I’m never sick, beyond an annual cold. But I’m plenty sick of menopause—I can’t seem to figure out how to do it right. And I haven’t seen the doctor in so long that we’re reviewing my family history.

I watch her. She’s a few years older than I am, but probably not much over 60. As she asks questions, she sometimes glances at me over her reading glasses but mostly looks at her laptop. I try not to feel judged.

She keeps typing as she starts her next question. “And, um, her….” Her voice trails off as she finishes her note without looking up. “Your mother’s menopause. What was that like?”

“She had a hysterectomy in 1967, when she was, let’s see, 50. She’d had bleeding?” I try to remember family stories while she types. “Fibroids, I think. They took her ovaries, too. She had estrogen shots afterwards, something like every six weeks or eight weeks, until maybe 1980 or so. Maybe later.”

I wish I’d paid attention to my mother’s health earlier, for so many reasons that haven’t stopped with her death. Like, when did she first notice her memory slipping—with menopause, or only later?

Clickety-clickety. “How about your siblings, any sisters?”

“One. Nine years older. She had ovarian cancer in her early twenties.”

Clack. The typing stops. “Oh.”

That always gets attention. Meeting her eyes, I say, “But it’s not that kind. Not related to BRCA. It’s—I don’t know the name. Contained? Though her ovary burst.” She shakes her head and resumes typing, and I wish I remembered the cancer type, but I babble on. “She had a hysterectomy, including ovaries. And radiation. She’s fine now.”

Clickety-clickety. “Good. And that was…when?”

“Um…” I do arithmetic. “Forty years ago? Forty-five? Early seventies.”

“No recurrence?” Click clickity click.

I shake my head, adding “No” aloud as her eyes stay glued to the screen. I wait.

Click click. The typing stops. “Hmm.” She still doesn’t look up. “So no natural menopause in your immediate family, then.”

“Yes. Right. No.” Not only am I not doing menopause right—my whole family hasn’t, either.

* 0 *

Perfect Deviled Eggs

Eggs are difficult to cook properly. Science says so: the white and the yolk harden at different temperatures. And personal preference defines “properly” {runny yolk : runny white : both runny : both hard : something in between}. My first time, at ten or twelve, deviling eggs for Sunday dinner. My mother standing over me as I measure, timer and teaspoons; the need to “do it right” imprinted early. My sister still asks me to devil eggs when I visit her, or she visits me. Deviled eggs are the only company-worthy dish I make. Decades of experience translate, in some small way, to skill. But I know, and science confirms, that eggs are difficult to cook properly, so I ask other women {only women: most men don’t make deviled eggs} for their secrets. Everyone’s secret is the opposite of someone else’s.

* 0 *

Nulliparous: A medical term that, for me, is synonymous with “normal.” Some medical conditions that sound ominous or pejorative simply describe a state of being. For example, if a medical condition has been defined that describes the state of “never having broken a bone,” I also have that.

* 0 *

As my doctor points out, I’m going through menopause without help from family history. I have sussed out this fact myself. I ponder it in the night, when I kick sheets off my sweating body. When I am wakeful and cranky for no real reason.

Or rather, for many reasons I can and do enumerate in the dark, reasons that I recognize as the vicissitudes of daily life but that still feel monstrously, disproportionately unfair. Reasons such as not enough work, too much work. Rejected work, others’ work chosen over mine. Plans for new writing that seem certain, in the night, to be rejected too.

Reasons that encompass the unsatisfactory nature of other areas of life. My marriage is fine; my husband is great, but there’s always something. Household chores—laundry undone, refrigerator shelves in desperate need of purging, cupboard shelves half-empty, a roof that leaks when the rain comes on the northeast wind, a deck that needs shoring up.

Or, more personally, my hair, in all its permutations—what needs to be coloured or encouraged, what needs to be removed, and how, and how often. My other failings—my fluctuating weight, lack of physical fitness, incessantly itchy skin, iffy wardrobe, and overall lack of skill in navigating female adulthood.

Such as this particular rite of passage, menopause. In the night, I feel especially orphaned. If I think about it too much, I can make myself cry. Unless that’s just sweat trickling down my face, which is also possible.

In the throes of hot-flashing insomnia, I flop from my back to my front and back again, punching and flipping my pillow as my husband snores undisturbed beside me. Finally, I give up and get up to pour a glass of water and read, trying not to think, This is someone else’s (unrejected) work.

Of all the “gifts” of menopause, insomnia feels particularly cruel, creating as it does a theatre for pondering life’s impermanences and impertinances. And sometimes along with all the rest that feels unfair, I ponder my family history, or rather, its lack. How do we do menopause in our family? I’ll never know. I try to spin it to the positive: I’ll be the first! I’m blazing a trail! Literally! Though I know “blazing” means something different when applied to a trail, I snort at my own joke and fan my face with my book.

Without any precedents, I’ve followed general advice for managing menopause. I have limited alcohol and sweets, exercised more, eaten more fruits and vegetables, and tried to keep regular hours for waking and sleeping. I can’t find it in me to give up coffee, but I’ve cut my chocolate intake to one nightly bite.

Yet about half the nights, I lie frustrated and sweating, or get up to read, for several hours. Hence the doctor’s appointment.

* 0 *

Secrets for Boiling Eggs to Devil

The eggs should be old, the ones that have been sitting in your refrigerator the longest. They should be fresh, from the farmer that day if you can get them.

Start with eggs that are room temperature. Get the eggs from the fridge into the pan quickly, while they’re still cold as ice cubes.

Put them into a saucepan and run cold water—as cold as possible, just short of ice—from the tap until they’re submerged. Cover them completely with hot tap water, you want to start them cooking right away.

Add a teaspoon of vinegar—that’s the secret; it’s absorbed through the shell. Vinegar in the cooking water does nothing beyond making the water smell.

Bring the water to a hard boil and boil the hell out of them for 20 minutes. Over medium heat, bring them to a gentle boil and turn down to simmer for about 12 minutes—no more, or that gray ring will form around the yolk.

* 0 *

Nulliparous: It’s my default state. It’s not so much that I decided not to have children. It’s that I never decided to have them. My life’s path has twisted and turned like anyone else’s. I’ve arrived at intersections and made choices. I’ve even burned my fair share of bridges. But I didn’t reach that particular crossroad until my hysterectomy.

* 0 *

Clickety-clack-clickety. “Okay, now you. How long have you been in menopause?”

“Well, I don’t know for sure. I haven’t had a uterus since 1999.” I keep my voice bland, though I’m a little alarmed at her question—isn’t my chart right in front of her? I explain briefly. A series of abnormal Pap smears. Two outpatient cone biopsies of my cervix over a three-year period, both negative for cancer. The last procedure, when I was 38, caused my cervix to heal closed. Hysterectomy was the only solution. I still have ovaries.

“Right.” Clicky-clickety. “So, the other menopause symptoms, then. Hot flashes?”

“Yeah.” I calculate. “Five years? Off and on?” I ignored them as long as I could.

She consults my date of birth—I’m 55. “Only five years?” I hear a raised eyebrow in her voice.

I’m doing it wrong. “Maybe six? Not more, though.”

“Okay. Back to your family, we’ll just update all the sections of this form while we’re at it. Pregnancies. How many times was your mother pregnant?”

“Um. At least seven that I know of. Their first baby died, and she had at least one miscarriage. And five of us.”

“And your sister?” Clickety-click.

I shake my head. “Hadn’t had a chance.”

“And you?”

Again, I shake my head. “No children. No pregnancies.” My choice.

The glance from under the hair. “Hmmm.” Clickety click.

That choice. That’s become a new concern for me in the wee hours. I was happily uninterested in having children for decades, but now my husband and I are making wills. Our physical assets can be divided and distributed to relatives, but what about the intangibles? Who will love this whole place—the ten acres my husband and I live on, part of which has been in my family since 1924—with the giddy reverence we do? Who will cherish the boxes in our basement, the ones holding a century’s worth of my mother’s family photographs and letters?

And one of my most selfish thoughts: who will be left to miss me?

I hear myself. I know that my insomnia is making it all about me, not acknowledging that the children I didn’t have would have been their own joyous, independent, autonomous selves.

In the years in which I didn’t have children, I didn’t foresee these wakeful hours. Then again, I didn’t foresee any part of menopause. I didn’t know how it would feel—or that it would feel any way in particular. For me, menstruation had been a minor inconvenience at worst. I had no reason to imagine that menopause would be different.

But I hadn’t seen it up close in a way I could remember or understand. I was six for my mother’s surgery and eleven when my sister had cancer. When I was in high school, my mother mentioned lying awake at night, worrying about my four siblings, starting with the oldest and working her way down to me, but I hadn’t connected her insomnia and worry to menopause or her estrogen shots.

Instead, I thought, “This is just how she is.” A nighttime worrier. That’s also what I thought in my mid-thirties, when “how she is” meant that Mom repeated stories, lost nouns, and felt mixed-up and confused. I clung to “how she is” until her diagnosis.

To be fair, our family didn’t talk about difficult transitions of any type. Those stories were never told, not until I came along to write about my mother’s Alzheimer’s Disease. Still, nothing about my mother’s menopause is documented in those boxes in the basement.

Click clickety clickety. I wonder what my physician keeps typing, since we’ve finished my family history. Eventually, she turns to me. “All right. We’ll send you for several different tests.”

I’m game. Whatever will help make me more rested and less cranky.

She resumes typing. I watch the printer, where pieces of paper—orders for my tests—rise smoothly in the tray.

* 0 *

 Secrets for Peeling Eggs to Devil

You have to shock them. Drain the saucepan and plunge the eggs in a bowl of ice water, then roll them around on the bottom of the bowl to crack the shell all over. Twist the shell slightly to break the membrane and slip the white out. Work fast.

Be gentle with them. Pour out some of the warm water. Then tilt the saucepan in the sink and run warm water over them, gradually changing to cooler and then finally cold. When the eggs are just cool enough to hold, leave a small stream of water running from the tap. Give the egg a smart rap against the sink, then hold the egg under the stream. The water will gentle off the shell and membrane.

It doesn’t matter when you peel them—you can even leave them unpeeled in the fridge overnight if you want.

Really, too many variables are at play to claim that you know THE perfect method for peeling eggs.

* 0 *

Nulliparous: Physically, my hysterectomy was easy, but I’d be lying if I said it was easy to accept. I was angry.

It wasn’t that I wanted to have kids after all.

It was partly that I’d been asking for a hysterectomy ever since my cervix showed abnormalities. If my cervix was only one or two steps away from cancer, I wanted it out. However, three different gynecologists, two of them male, had said I was too young, in my early thirties, to make that decision.

But mostly I was angry because until that surgery, having children had been my decision: I didn’t have children. After the hysterectomy, I couldn’t. That bridge lay in ashes behind me.

* 0 *

A few weeks after my checkup, I’m in my kitchen. A dozen eggs have bubbled and nudged each other in a saucepan. On the counter, I set a red bowl, part of the Corningware mixing-bowl set just like my mother’s, and a red-handled paring knife that I took from her kitchen when we were closing up our family home. I fold a paper towel in half and set it beside the sink; I’ll blot the eggs and wipe my knife blade on it. I pour steaming water from the pan into the sink and add cool tap water to cover them again.

Starting with my hand underwater, I crack the first egg. After I peel it, I cut it in half to be sure the yolk is solid. The white is too hot for me to handle much, but I manage to pop the yolk halves into the bowl. Then I start running a thin stream of water into the saucepan and, one by one, roll eggs against the stainless steel sink divider.


The sound reminds me of my physician, first at her laptop and then brandishing the sheaf of orders for urine tests, blood tests, and a mammogram.

“This’ll get us started,” she says.

Her face, behind that mop of bangs. The first of many faces.

Two new faces at the lab. The dark eyes of the round-faced young, male tech-in-training, skilled in blood draws but embarrassed to hand me the urinalysis cup. The amused indulgence in the smile of the woman, near my age, who coached him.

Another face. Two weeks after my doctor’s appointment, the reassuring direct gaze of the first radiology tech. “This is the first mammogram they have on file for you, so don’t be alarmed if they want more images,” she says. “They just want to get to know your body.”

Then a few days after that first mammogram, in a different clinic, yet another face. A different tech takes more-detailed images. Her dark eyebrows pull together; her hair is long and straight and streaked with fuchsia. She crouches and peers up at me from underneath the machine, gazing intently at the smooth white arc of my left breast, while she aligns plates for the third image. Without cheer in her voice, she increases the pressure, asking “You still okay?” and listening for my “Yep, I’m fine” before twisting the knob again. And again.

An hour after those follow-up images—as I tell myself, nothing to be concerned about, they just want to get to know my body—another young woman, unblinking, rubs an ultrasound wand over the gel on my left breast, first in circles, then in rows, increasing pressure, holding still in one spot, in another. She chews slightly on the inside of her cheek, accenting its heart shape, but shows no other expression.

When she’s done, she hands me a towel, her voice kind. “The results will go back to your family doc, probably by…” She consults a chart. “Maybe tomorrow. Or no, it’s a holiday. Monday for sure. I know you must be worried.”

I must be worried? I wipe myself with the towel automatically and find that yes, I have been worried. My wee-hour concerns have shifted focus, from general life insults to the state of my left breast, without my conscious awareness. But I’m aware of worry now.

I leave the clinic and stop at the grocery store. There, I consult my list and put lettuce and carrots and milk into a basket. As I head toward the checkout, I think, “Who the fuck am I kidding?” and buy ice cream on a two-for-one special, my first taste in more than a year.

A few days after the follow-up images, still the holiday weekend, still waiting for results, I am restless. Most of the ice cream has disappeared, and I’m done with it anyway. I want to nurture myself with real food. I want to connect with my mother and my sister, as two or three of us together made deviled eggs in eight or ten different kitchens throughout the past fifty years.

I crack eggs, thinking of all of those new faces that are now part of my medical history. And I see still other faces: those of the children I didn’t have. The colorful covers of the books I haven’t yet written. And the faces of my mother, my sister.

* 0 *

 Secrets for the Best Deviled Egg Filling

Separate yolks from whites. {You may also add whites that tore during peeling or that are otherwise imperfect.}

Using two knives {a pastry cutter : a fork} cut yolks into smaller-than-pea-sized pieces. Into the yolks, mix real mayonnaise {use Miracle Whip : never use Miracle Whip}, mustard {dry mustard, hand-ground : yellow hot dog mustard : coarse brown deli mustard : honey-mustard : whatever is in your fridge}, salt and pepper {yes, salt, even if you’re cutting out salt, the filling must have salt, also pepper : watch the salt and use only white pepper, so you get the flavour; black looks gross, like bug bits}, and a splash of a form of vinegar {dill pickle juice : sweet pickle juice : just add pickle relish : pickle relish makes it no different from egg salad : not pickle juice, just a splash of white vinegar : use prepared mustard and skip this} to taste {forget vinegar}. Experiment: {never} add curry!

Mix filling until it holds together. Then {using a small spoon : using an icing tube with a fancy cake-decorating tip : seriously?} fill the bowl of each egg white with approximately two teaspoons of filling.

Garnish as desired {with a sprinkle of paprika : with a slice of pimento-stuffed green olive or sweet gherkin : with a jalapeno slice : with a slice of black olive : with a tiny parsley leaf : seriously?}.

* 0 *

Nulliparous: Being nulliparous, as I am—not bringing forth a child, making that choice once, twice, monthly throughout decades—increases my risk of developing both ovarian and breast cancer. More consequences I didn’t foresee.

Still, I’ve never regretted my choice. If could backtrack along my life’s path, I wouldn’t choose differently. But what if it had never been my choice to make? What if I’d wanted children and been unable to get pregnant? How unfair that would feel.

* 0 *


I roll the hard-boiled eggs against the sink surfaces and between my hands. I break the inner membrane and slide off the attached pieces of shell. I rinse the egg to remove those last, tiny, diamond-sharp bits.

Before I slice each egg open, I hold it in my palm.

I marvel at how white and smooth the eggs are, like my left breast in those dim rooms, where the only light came from a computer screen. The screen on which I glimpsed spotty images, like constellations spinning around a bright spot in the centre of my left breast.

Constellations are pictures from the past—the star twinkles actually occurred thousands of years ago. Winking at me from that computer screen was a picture from my own past—my history, and my family history. The consequences of decisions I’d made in my twenty-thousand-plus days of living, combined with the effects of innumerable perfect and imperfect cell divisions and reproductions, after one ovum and one spermatozoon found each other decades ago.

I roll each peeled, damp egg on the towel before slicing it open. Yolks accumulate in the red bowl. I put each empty half onto a glass plate made especially for deviled eggs—eighteen ovals around the edge, with room for six or eight halves bunched in the plate’s center.

The day after I make the deviled eggs, I learn that I’m scheduled for a biopsy to investigate that bright spot in my left breast. They’re just getting to know your body has lost all comfort for me. So I reframe my worry yet again: Better to know, right? Information is power!

Just before the biopsy, they take yet another set of still-more-powerful images. These images convince the radiologist that the bright spot is simply my own tissue. I’ll have another mammogram in six months. I can relax until then. My sleep will improve.

But as I stir the filling that day I’m making eggs and thinking of faces, I don’t know that I’ll need a biopsy, or that I won’t need one after all.

That day, I simply do the job. I cut up egg yolks; I sprinkle salt and pepper; I add mustard and mayonnaise. Nine years ago, I made deviled eggs for my wedding reception, while my sister kibitzed and commented on my filling choices. Both of us missed our mother that day. Round and round: my mother, my sister, and me. My stir-spoon traces the interior face of the bowl and I, too, circle, from breast to ovaries.

It comes back to eggs—all the eggs my ovaries have held and released. My ovaries float around in my abdomen, unable as always to tell me directly how they’re doing. Since my hysterectomy they’ve been unable even to send me messages through the thickening and release of uterine lining. But I’ve never wondered what they were up to, not until my recent wakeful, sweaty nights. If they ever functioned, which I can’t automatically assume, are they still going strong? Or are they finally tired?

I dip my pinkie fingernail into the bowl to taste the filling. After another sprinkle of salt and a final stir to mix it in, I wash my hands. I think of my family history and all its dead ends. And me, my dead beginnings. My ovaries, unused. My no-varies.

I scoop filling into a teaspoon and, with my forefinger, push it into the round white cavity in each white oval, working my way around the plate. I have no need for garnish. This is my last step—how I do it, whether or not I’m doing it right.


Marion Agnew lives and writes in a home office overlooking Lake Superior. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in literary journals in the U.S. and Canada and online, including The Malahat Review, and most recently at Full Grown People, Compose, and Gravel. Her work has received support from the Ontario Arts Council. For more about her, see

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