The family dinner table. My favorite place and time. And the very best chance to get what passed for sex education in the 1950’s.
But I was one of those annoying kids who always went there. The questions that could not and would not be answered.
The first time in my memory that I realized this, I was about 7 or 8 years old. I went to a very protective catholic school, which, by the way, did nothing to further my quest for sexual knowledge.
We were sent often to religious “retreats”, which were held at a very ethereal, peaceful, almost spa-like locations, usually in the woods. Here we engaged in prayer and meditation; sustained silence was only broken by Mass, or Novena, or Stations of the Cross.
These day-long retreats would include the ever-present lecture, usually by a priest, who reinforced the notion that even thinking about physical contact with a member of the opposite sex was a sin. Kissing was a sin, touching was a sin, lustful thoughts were a sin. Usually classified as a “venial” sin, not a mortal one, which meant you could deal with it in a confessional, and with the right prayer penance, could be forgiven. Whew.
So, from every direction, we were inundated with messages of shame, denial, fear, and to me at age 8, utter confusion. It was then, during a girl scout meeting at school on a Saturday afternoon, that I accepted the challenge. I was to walk into the boys’ lavatory.
There it was; the first real 4 letter word I had ever seen in print, and it was scratched into the wall of the first stall I checked out. In very primitive script…. F.U.C.K.
While friends stood giggling and staring in at the urinals from the hallway, I made my escape. But the seed was planted.
That night at dinner, I waited until we were all seated at the table. I looked over at my mother, who was usually the last one to start her meal, and I popped the question.
“What does F.U.C.K. mean ?” It was simple, logical, unemotional, and stated as a matter of fact. I had no reason to fear or be ashamed of the question, or apprehensive of the answer.
Until my mother dropped her fork, turned beet-red, and stared over at Dad for moral support. He grinned widely; I will never forget the look, and said. “Go ahead, tell her, Mom”.
She died in 1980 at the age of 53. I never received her answer.
I never made the connection, but about a year prior, my mother was pregnant with her fourth child when I looked at her bulging middle and asked the inevitable “Where do babies come from and how does it happen?” This time, she didn’t exactly dodge the question. Somewhere between “pass the mashed potatoes” and “do you want gravy on yours?”, I got this response, and I quote “It is what happens when you sleep with a boy”.
At the time, I remember feeling lucky that I only had sisters. We alternated bedding and often shared an open-spring, double bed with my grandmother, or one of my two sisters. We had many overnight stays with cousins out of town; again, all girls. So, at least until my two younger brothers arrived, I was safe, and not pregnant.
There were films that we were shown at the Y.W.C.A. much later on, maybe age 12 or 13, regarding reproduction, feminine hygiene, etc. It was all very clinical and impersonal, and in my opinion, came way too late.
Most of what I learned about the facts of life came somewhere between those dinner table sessions and the film. It usually came while sitting outside, playing jacks or making a chalk line for hopscotch. Sometimes while riding a bike with a friend, or using the key to adjust our roller-skates; the information was sketchy at best, and just left me more confused and curious.
I had one resourceful neighbor who would take his dad’s old Playboy magazines and bury them in the woods behind our house, proudly sharing them with us when he could; no doubt to elicit the shock from us, the innocents, the girls.
With time, I learned to do a little more research before asking the big questions. The family dinner in the 1950’s was mandatory, almost sacred. It was the perfect place to have a captive audience.
I took my shot. I have no regrets. I will never forget the intense reactions I received.
This stuff mattered. It was important. But I would have to go seek out the real answers on my own. After all, this was not the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. This was the decade that preceded it.