The whole subject of the birds and the bees was pretty much shrouded in mystery back in Ireland in the fifties. The most a child with an enquiring mind could hope for was to glean a little info here, another little bit there, then try to cobble it all together in a way that made sense....
In our fourth grade class there was at least one girl who was "well up" on the mysteries of the grown-up world. I'll call her Nora, to protect myself in case she should stumble upon this and come after me with an axe. I didn't particularly like Nora. She was a large, pale girl with a doughy complexion, and small unfriendly eyes. And she sat directly behind me at the back of the class.
Some chance remark on the playground tipped her off that my information on where babies came from involved storks and cabbages. So she embarked on a mission to educate me. After all, we couldn't have people running about, entertaining such primitive ideas. She felt she was doing a service to society, and to me in particular, although I was less than grateful for her efforts on my behalf. Not least because they were delivered into my ear in full view of the nun up at the blackboard, droning on about fractions.
I was appalled at the revelations, and not altogether sure she wasn’t making it all up. My parents, surely, would never do that? And how could a kind and loving God, the same guy who looked down on us with His beard and His gentle eyes, from the wall over our kitchen table, have such a twisted sense of humor as to make it necessary to be a contortionist if you wanted to be a mommy some day?
Next time we went out the country for a visit with the relatives, I watched
my uncle and his wife with new interest. I had attended their wedding the year before, and they had recently had a baby. I was fascinated that they had been able to maneuver themselves into the necessary positions, as explained to me by Nora. I decided that even though it sounded messy and complicated and embarrassing, I might as well get over it, as it seemed to be the way things were done.
Those nuns have a lot to answer for though. We were not encouraged to think of the human body as beautiful. The feeling they most encouraged in us was shame. Better to cover up. We'd have it on our conscience if, God forbid, a boy should have an impure thought after glancing at us. It was a sin, they told us, for girls to wear trousers. Proof positive that there was a bottom under there. It was a sin, they told us, to wear a sleeveless blouse. Consider, if you will, the sexiness of the upper arm. Feeling aroused? Wanton hussy! Go put your burqa on this minute....The onus was on us, they told us, to keep things under control in our dealings with the opposite sex. Men and boys, they told us , were in the clutches of forces over which they had scant control. They depended on women, whether they acknowledged it or not, to be pure and strong and keep them off the devil's doorstep.
When our own children were born I wanted to be sure that they would not have to depend on furtive whispers at the back of the class from a modern day Nora. I tried to answer the inevitable questions with humor and at least a smattering of truth. Too much, too soon, is as bad as too little, too late. But I'm done. It's much more fun sitting here on the sidelines, chuckling , while Liz wrestles with the questions.