THE BIRDS AND THE BEES
Me at fourteen and a half, shortly after my big talk with Mama. Mama (lower right corner of photo) hadn’t yet recovered from the BIG TALK.
My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction, and awarded the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction. Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon.
Back in the stone age, when I was a kid, parents seemed to assume that any information a girl got about S-E-X should come as a divine revelation, hopefully just before she got married. I didn’t know what caused babies until I was fourteen and a half. I don’t recommend such ignorance. You’d think observation would have provided me some clues. We didn’t live on a farm with breeding animals, but we frequently visited relatives who did. And even in the mill towns where we lived there were stray cats and dogs about. However, I’m sure Mama had Daddy get rid of any females that began attracting admirers. Perhaps I didn’t want to know any facts. I’ll bet my younger sister had things figured out long before I stumbled over the information one evening at Aunt Hilde’s house.
While the adults lingered at the supper table and the younger kids watched a snowy program on a black and white television as big as a small refrigerator, I looked through a large stack of Reader’s Digest magazines. The title on one cover arrested my attention at once: “How to Tell Your Child the Facts of Life.” I knew where babies came from, thanks to having asked my mother at a crowded family reunion eight years before. What I lacked was the essential information about what started the baby. Now at last maybe I had all the other facts here in my sweaty hands. I furtively turned to the article and began reading—ovaries, hormones, periods, “intercourse”….what the heck? My parents? My grandparents, Aunt Murdess and Uncle Jim Bob? Impossible! There had to be an alternative method, and I was going to have to get up the nerve to ask Mama what it was.
It took several days. It was summer and my mother wasn’t working at the mill. Because of a nervous breakdown several months before, she was home recuperating with lots of help from Miles Nervine. I finally got up courage to broach the big question. Better not tell her about the article—and risk never being allowed to read anything at Aunt Hilde’s house.
“What causes babies?” I asked.
“What?” Mama said, clutching her broom.
I managed to choke out the question again.
Mama snatched the bottle of Miles Nervine from her pocket with shaking hands. She took a swig and then muttered, “Later. Can’t you see I’m busy now?” She began sweeping vigorously. Her face was scarlet.
It must have been two hours before she finished in the house and came outside to sit beside me on the front steps. “Y’all go on,” she told my younger siblings. “Play somewhere else.”
They didn’t need the house to fall on them—they figured out something was going on and drew closer. They weren’t about to miss any excitement.
Mama came up with plan two. “Ya’ll can go to the store and buy some candy,” she said and dug in her pocket for change. That did the trick. We rarely went to the little store down the highway, and we almost never had candy.
When the kids were out of hearing, Mama began telling me about the ovaries, but she called them ‘egg sacks.’ At some point in her 29 years she must have read an article similar to the one in the Digest, because the information agreed so far. Once a month, she said, one egg was released. The body got ready to grow a baby. Only most of the time that didn’t happen, so all the materials were dumped, and that was what a period was. Now she sidetracked on to the subject of periods, which I didn’t need, because I’d been having them for a year.
Mama took another drink of Nervine and dropped her eyes. “Well, anyway, sometimes, ever now and then, something happens to the egg and it starts to grow into a baby. Well what happens….It takes something from a, uh, man. Well, and, well, I think I better tell you more about the egg.”
She did. She went over every excruciating detail and then all the information about the period, even getting into sanitary pads and sanitary belts, and the importance of bathing “privates.”
Just then my sister and my brothers reappeared in our driveway and Mama said, “I’m no good at explaining stuff like this. Do you reckon you could take everything I’ve told you so far and figure out the rest?”
I leaped to my feet, relieved. “Yes!”
And I did, thanks to Reader’s Digest. A good thing too—this was the nearest approach Mama made to discussing sex with me until well after I was married and had a child on my own.
By then, folks, it was too late—one of those eggs had had something happen to it!
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