I learn the facts of life

I’m often asked what it’s like to be a writer — how I spend my days, how I experience the world. And so I will be sharing occasional essays from the front lines of my writing life. Enjoy!

I learn the facts of life, by Beth Mende Conny

©2014 Beth Mende Conny

I am 10-years-old. My friend Laura asks, “Do you know where babies come from?”

I don’t like her tone; it is more of a taunt. Laura is as close to being a woman of the world as a neighborhood kid can be. She knows stuff the rest of us don’t and doles it out in jaw-dropping snippets. I sense she is trying to scare me, but ha! I happen to know the answer to this question thanks to my infallible source, aka my mother.

“A man and a woman fall in love and from their love comes a baby,” I say.

“Uh-uh. A man and a woman fuck.”

“No they don’t!”

“Yes, they do. They FUCK!”

Although I don’t understand the “F” word, I know that it does, indeed, have an “f” in it and is somehow related to the penis spray painted onto my elementary school’s wall. I don’t understand penises either, other than I don’t have one and wouldn’t want one based on the graffiti artist’s depiction.

I decide not to argue with Laura. She sounds far too confident, and, besides, I am crying. I run home, burst through the door and scream at my mother: “Where do babies come from?!”

I don’t remember her answer but likely it was less authoritative than her first. She hands me off to my father.

My father is a writer, not an artist, so it is quite confusing when he sits me down and starts drawing flowers and bees. He waxes poetic about pollen. I don’t know what pollen is but get the sense I don’t want to either.

Enter my sister, three years my senior and another woman of the world. She looks at my father’s sketches. “You’re teaching her the facts of life, aren’t you,” she says in her trademark superior tone.

I look from her to my father to his drawings and I struggle to find a connection: Flowers, bees, pollen, men, women, fucking, penises and facts of life. Facts? Like the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620? That 5 x 7 = 35?

Next memory:

My mother and I are in a bookstore. She goes to the counter and asks: “Do you have any books on the Facts of Life?” I say “ask,” but my mother’s voice is quite loud and it sounds as if she is shouting the question over a P.A. system. Heads turn and I scurry behind a distant bookcase.

That night my mother and I read the book of Facts, which is filled with shocking black and white drawings. Particularly upsetting is the picture of a penis. In the book, it is a half-inch long; on my school’s wall, it is one story high. I don’t know how to reconcile the two.

My mother finishes her sordid tale and my mind races. Laura is right once again. Men and women fuck. My parents have fucked. Who else? My teachers? Dentist? My grandmother?! How can this be? She is old and walks with a cane; she drops food on her chest when she eats. I will never sit next to her again. I will never sit next to anyone. The world is full of fuckers!

My mother asks if I have any questions. I have two.

First question: “Can you keep your shirt on?”

“Well, yes,” she says, “but you might not want to.” Yeah, right.

Second question: “What are the other Facts?” My 10-year-old ears have heard one fact only and it is a doozy. If there are other Facts, I want to know them now, get this whole fucking business behind me.

“No, there are no others,” my mother says. I am relieved.

Flash forward:

My daughter Julia is about 10 when she asks me where babies come from. I am ready for this moment. I have rehearsed it in my mind. I have already purchased a book with tasteful pictures, penises drawn to scale. I will tell her the truth but with a light touch, lest she be traumatized. I do not want her to feel she can never sit next to her grandmother again.

I am barely into my presentation when Julia interrupts me. “I know this stuff,” she says, and off she goes. I’m disappointed. This was to be our moment; my moment.

Oh well. I will save the book for my younger daughter Jenna. Just as well. I know I will have another shot at telling her the Facts of Life, only this time it will be the real Facts of Life: a man and woman fall in love and from that love comes a baby.

For this I will need no picture book.

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