I suppose I’d asked the question, though my mother was certainly frank enough to initiate such a discussion, or to lead it there. It’s unlikely she said anything about “when a man and woman are married,” because I found out at seventeen that my six older brothers and sisters were all bastards, the folks having never bothered to formalize things till they were well under way, shortly before I was born. It’s more probable she said something about “when a man and woman love each other, the man enters the woman and…” though I couldn’t have guessed what she was talking about, something spiritual, mystical, no doubt. All I remember for sure was the part about the man having these things in him, like little fish, that flow out and into the woman (if they love each other), where they meet an egg, tinier than a chicken’s, of course, and a baby somehow begins. Odd image, this supernatural convergence of fish and eggs and their transmutation into humans. It sure reinforced my belief in magic. I was particularly uneasy about these mythical fish, and pretty dubious about my role as their keeper.
The lesson didn’t quite take. Looking back I can see how I’d always taken magic for granted, the grand mystery of how the world works its capricious will, as in the example of my parents falling in love despite themselves and circumstances (they had been high school sweethearts, but were both married to others at the time their passion conceived my brother Ed), and the confluence of their life-forces coming together to make babies in some ethereal method that could only be explained through exotic – and to me, uncomfortable – symbols. Hence my passive stance in the play. There didn’t seem to be much human control in the equation.
Okay, I was slow. At a fourth grade class party I found myself dancing to 45s of The Boxtops and The Strawberry Alarm Clock with sweet Carmen Rivera, the omelet of my eely little eyes. Our gazes were locked and the field between our moving bodies pulsed with charged particles of universal powers aligning in the pull of complementary opposites. It’s true, and it was sex. I felt it in the heat of my loins. My guts stirred, and I thought, “I am entering her.” Then a second, more worrisome thought: “The fish are running.”
Close, anyway. Something was starting to run. It took Matt Huyler (whose lovely sisters had provided ample opportunity for more technical and erotic exploration in games of doctor), a worldly eleven-year-old, to point out the gross reality of sex. I burst into hysterics at the bizarre yet perfect logic of his filthy imagination. Sticking a penis into a vagina. To conceive such an idea! At home, still hiccupping with the past spasms of mirth, I told my mother the joke. She stared at me a little coolly, quizzically, and said, “You know that’s true. I told you all about it. Remember?” Now I really had something to think about. A lot.
My mother once told me that people are sexual creatures from the beginning, and I believe it (especially in her case). Not just in the sense of Freudian development and stages, but that it’s programmed in the core of our personalities, how we relate to one another, the energies we give and receive, our responses to the world as live physical beings. From the beginning. Prepubescent children are curious, of course, and enjoy sensual pleasure, but are also capable of inexpressible fantasies and inarticulate desires – for other children, for adults, for themselves, for connections.
It’s beyond mere curiosity or anal or oedipal stages. I remember at a very early age being thrilled by fantasies of a world in which no one wore clothes, not my teachers, my parents, the people on the street. But it wasn’t a merely visual fantasy. It wasn’t just about feasting my eyes on body parts. It was tactile and emotional as well – creative, even – a generalized desire, a rethinking of the world, not so much in specific images in the dream or locus on my body, but in a beautiful oneness of my body and mind with the world, in pleasure. My blood-doped veins surged with the thought of always being in close proximity to the skin and hair and heat of others.
More specifically, again as a young child – about eight – I remember longing, achingly, for Betty Huyler, liking her as I never had before. I wanted her, somehow – not that she pull down her pants as she sometimes did – but that she let me kiss her. Kiss as emotional expression and kiss as sensuous experience, in one. We were playing tag on a hot summer day. I didn’t dare humiliate myself by asking, but I was absolutely fixed on her blond hair in the sun, her face, the intimate creamy brown skin in the crooks of her elbows and knees. I found every opportunity I could to tag and be tagged, to touch her arm, to bump together and fall. That day I loved her.
Sex is never far around the corner in any given household. It’s what mom and dad do. It’s where the kids come from, and it’s where the kids are heading. I sometimes think of people’s homes as caves where all the intimate, primal, secret stuff takes place. Why do you think the Three Bears were so upset with Goldilocks? Think of the intrusion on family ritual, on fetishistic private objects and places, the inner sanctum where we perform unselfconscious animal functions, communicate rawer attitudes and ethics, reveal a truer face to our children and parents than in the public social institutions of which we’re also learning to become members. It’s where the deep personality is built, and it’s why every family creates its organically individual strains of weirdness in the same why we create children that look a little like all their grandparents. Each cave handles sexuality in its own way, from one extreme to the other.
My parents were openly passionate about each other, and as I said, my mother was a very sexual woman. She was as sensuous in her caress, selfish in her love, and assured in her knowledge of us all as she was of the stories she wrote. We were her own beloved, if flawed creations. The critics, the eyes of propriety, could go to hell. My parents slept naked, a fact I found interesting enough to tell Adele Bowers, a first grader and my senior by a year. I thought she was mature enough to handle the information, but she told her mother, who called my mother to inform her I’d been talking dirty to her daughter, whom I couldn’t play with anymore if I continued to talk dirty. My mother laughed, as she had a few years earlier when a neighbor woman called to tell her I was walking around without my diaper. Well, it must be hard for some people to look upon the savage figure of a nude two-year-old. I wonder what her childhood cave was like.
What would she think to know that some mornings after the older kids were gone to school I’d climb back into bed with my mother, toying the silky locks of her hair as she fell back asleep, blissfully, no doubt? When my wife weaned our two-year-old, Molly, in preparation for the new baby, she took to drinking her bottle on my lap with her hand shoved down my shirt, stroking my nipples (not so blissful). If my back is turned, she’ll reach down and pinch me between my shoulders blades, and if she’s alone she’ll gently stroke her own chest, what my sisters used to call “tickling little.” As children we’d tickle each other little while telling stories by the fireplace. That was the message I got about touching. But I still remember sibling Gay reporting that when her boyfriend’s mother saw him absentmindedly running his fingers up and down his arm, yelled at him, “stop fondling yourself!”, the same woman who called my mother to ask if she knew what “children do in the bushes.” I can imagine what she did. And the shame.
I know these things because they were the stuff of dinner conversation, for all to hear and consider.
Apparently my mother was a little more concrete in her first parent-child discussion of sex with my oldest brother and sister. She recalled that they took the news with straight faces and quickly excused themselves. A half an hour later they returned and announced, “It doesn’t work.” But discovery of our bodies and how they do work is an inevitability. We know from early on what feels good (“Mom, how come when I touch my penis like this it gets stiff?”). We pick up information and vocabulary, either directly – as in my siblings’ case – or in dribs and drabs over time – as in mine. We intuit that there’s something really big and mysterious making the world go round, and it has to do with the body, and is perhaps a bit naughty, to be kept secret, or at least, generally quiet, though oddly shared by all. Once, my teenaged sister Jean was having a giddy conversation with her friend, Lisa, who said, “I can’t even stand it! Every time I see a boy I know he’s thinking about putting in me!” Another time, my sister Coleen and her friend Janet were discussing what penises looked like. To my horror, they turned to me and said, “Dennis, show us yours!” and chased me about the house.
Now, as a parent, as a sexual being, I’m faced with a host of perhaps typical hurdles and paradoxes and hypocrisies in dealing with my children. What is too much; what is too little? Should I just lets things come organically as my tired parents did by the time my younger brother and I were on the scene? At seven, my oldest daughter certainly knows more than I did at her age. She’s got the technical facts. This September she attended the birth of her sister (the doctor disapproved, said it could cause shock) and was thrilled: “My face won’t let me stop smiling.” But I wouldn’t want her playing doctor as I had done. I wouldn’t be comfortable with her posing naked for her cousin as mine had, whose visits I always awaited with erotic anticipation. As soon as possible we’d slip away, hide in the dark, and she’d spin wild sexual, even sadomasochistic, fantasies about us. She a young child – it is a creative force! Maybe it’s part of the cycle for parents to want to shield their children from the wild impulses that they indulged. Or is it a jealous possession of that which must be passed on?
And children too, in their turn, become furtive and mysterious as they grow, as they become increasingly aware that there is something large and private about their sexual selves. They who discover their genitals in your presence (“That’s my vulva, Daddy!”) gradually become aware of nakedness, and so more hungry for the fruit of knowledge, and so more “ashamed.” Molly recently stopped thrashing as I applied ointment to her diaper rash. She then insisted I put some on her fingers too and began applying it liberally, but to a very specific spot. She then began asking for Desitin on a regular basis. What worlds will grow from that small seed, and in what a fecund but increasingly remote garden of the imagination housed in a growing, knowing, beautiful body that I helped make out of mine.
What burgeoning. In the dark. Like mushrooms. When my wife and I used to hug and kiss, Claire would drive herself between us like a little Freudian wedge. Now she looks a bit embarrassed but curious, and says, “What are you guys doing?” I have walked into a quiet room and startled guilty looking children. I have been caught by my parents in a storage closet making out with my new fifteen-year-old neighbor. I have seen my daughter go from begging me to stay with her while she bathed, to splashing naked Barbies behind her back and asking with wet, wide eyes, “What do you want?” I have been told by an older sister before I knew what the word meant, “Stop rubbing on your chair like that. It looks like you’re masturbating.”
Then there’s the want to know/don’t want to know feelings about parents and sex. It dawned on me one Saturday afternoon when I couldn’t find anyone to play with, that my parents must be in their room, but the door was closed, which was unusual. They only closed it when privacy or secrecy was needed, as in a personal talk or scolding, or the wrapping of gifts. I didn’t bother trying to open it, for if it was closed it was locked. I was about to call them when it hit: The Great Intimacy of People Who Love Each Other was going on in there. I felt a little lonely and left out. Later, I scrutinized their faces for clues. More recently, my daughter entered our bedroom on a Saturday morning, took a step back, squinted at us and said, “Were you guys having sex?” Maybe she was able to see in our faces what I failed to see in my parents. She walked out before we could articulate a response.
A couple of years before my father died, we went to Texas to visit him and Jane, his third wife (he wrote after my mother’s death that he found living without a woman intolerable). Late one night over a glass of whiskey, after our wives had gone to bed – bored, no doubt, at our rehashing of family history, Apocrypha, stretchers, and stolen memories – the subject turned to my mother, how outrageous, bold, funny, crazy she was. He went silent for a moment, shot a glance at the hallway, then leaned toward me and whispered in husky enthusiasm as if remembering an old flame to a friend, “Dennis, your mother was the sexiest woman I ever knew.” Odd, maybe, but I swelled with pride. Perhaps because this man who had been an awesome giant was now being so close and confident with me. Perhaps because I was glad to hear him reaffirm his love for Mom. Certainly because in the best possible way, I knew where I had come from.