But Mom, I’m Twelve Years Old!
Copyright © 2006, Daniel V. Klein
My Mother and I had our embarrassing conversation about sex when I was 12 years old. You know the kind – where Mom feels awkward, and the kid feels like he’d rather be anywhere else than a verbal and virtual captive, trapped in the back seat of the car, with no escape until the end of the 20-minute ride home from school. That was how it was for me, but putting it that way would not be exactly fair to either of us. You see, we had been having conversations about sex for over a decade, it just wasn’t quite as… personal? No, that isn’t quite correct either.
My mom was a character. Is a character, really – nearly 80 years of life had not changed what, I imagine, has been at the root of her since childhood. People don’t believe me, of course. Everyone talks about their parents that way. After all, what are parents but a constant source of embarrassment (and grudgingly, guidance) in youth, and a constant source of amusing (or truthfully, embarrassing) anecdotes in adulthood. So while I relate all this in past tense – “mom was”– that is simply to spare me all the effort of describing (and you believing) the utterly unrepentant character that she is today. Now, I am certain that she has a different recollection of her past, but she can tell her own story at another time. This story is mine.
I was a precocious child. Some would say “scary,” although from my viewpoint, how could I tell? I started talking long before I learned to walk. My earliest memory is when I was a little more than 2 years old, before my sister was born. I distinctly remember riding to the grocery store in the stroller, and then walking home with the stroller full of groceries. I can glimpse the street, and my Mother’s hand reaching down to my own upstretched one. And although I do not recall the actual incident myself, my Mother tells me that I profoundly embarrassed her by shouting out in the store “My Mommy has a baby in her belly, and it’s going to come out soon!” Perhaps our embarrassing conversation about sex was her delayed revenge, and perhaps it was just a warning shot, a presaging of things to come. My Mother loves to use the excuse of her being a sexologist and social anthropologist to talk about anything, whether in “polite company” or not. I have long ago ceased to be embarrassed by such talk, and now just play along. But whether she started it or I did is unknown – whatever the roots, they go back much further.
I was speaking words at 9 months of age, and in full sentences by the time I was 15 months old. One of our oldest and dearest family friends is a doctor who moved in next door to us. When he and I first met, he leaned over my stroller and said to me in his classic English “enunciate when you talk to the baby” voice: “Hello Danny, how are you today.” I’m told that my equally clearly enunciated reply of “Good afternoon Doctor Forester. I am fine. How are you?” so flustered the poor man that he was quite speechless for a few moments.
In addition to speaking quite early, I was just like every other wide-eyed child. I was a sponge for new information, and the world around me was a source of endless questions. And since I was blessed with the gift of early speech, it was my Mother and Father who (gladly, they say) suffered the onslaught of these questions.
I am a rare person in the United States – of the 4 million of us born here in 1957, not many share my status. I was born in the District of Columbia, that being the “D.C.” part of what most people call Washington D.C. For most of the first two years of my life, I lived in Arlington Virginia, whereupon we moved to New York City. That it was the North Bronx will cause Manhattanites to sneer that the Bronx is not “The City”, but I speak in terms of geopolitical boundaries, and not social ones. But in similar terms, it delights me to inform people who call me “Yankee” that I was reared in the South, and then only later in life migrated Northward. Because my Father’s job as a researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine had not yet started, my pregnant Mother set up house in New York until my Father arrived, and from their saved correspondences, I learnt of our first embarrassing conversation about sex.
The fact that I was less than two years old meant that nothing embarrassed me, so it was my Mother’s turn to be embarrassed. She was bathing me, and her letter to my Father relates that we were in the bathtub together. Nudity has never been an issue for our family, and in the privacy of our home we were always all quite comfortable walking around nude. Privacy was always respected, so when we were nude, it was always by choice. I suppose this degree of comfort in myself was imbued quite early in life, and her letter to my Father reveals this. Yet in spite of this comfort, she was still flustered, because I looked down at my genitals and then at hers, and as only a two year old can, observed that there were differences. Where was her penis, I asked? Her letter does not detail her exact reply, but it does say that she had a difficult time concocting an answer.
I was relentless in my quest for answers, however. She tells me that at age 3, I asked where babies came from, and that she explained the mechanics of birth to me. But being insatiably curious, I couldn’t figure out where babies originated, so I then asked how they got into the mother’s belly. Not wanting to fill my head with the twaddle that most parents foist upon their children, she was simply honest with me. She told me that she didn’t think I was old enough yet to understand, and that she would explain it to me when I was older. And perhaps because I recognized the innate honesty in her reply, I let it go at that. But a year or so later, I once again asked her; once again she deferred me to a later date; and once more I relented. And then finally in August of 1962, I asked her again. I was 5 years old that summer, and she tells me that I said, “Mommy, I think I am old enough now – where do babies come from?” And she thought about it, and concluded that precocious as I was, perhaps indeed I spoke the truth. So she told me.
I thought she was crazy! So I went and asked my Father the same question, and quite amazingly, he gave me the same basic answer. I thought that they were both nuts!
Now in all honesty, I don’t recall our specific conversations. Memory is a funny thing. Sometimes we recall details, sometimes only vague events, and sometimes our memories are tinted or tainted by others’ stories of the events. But I vividly remember sitting on a wall overlooking the cove at Bantam Lake, marveling that both my parents were crazy, and that there had to be a better explanation than that unbelievable story! That they both answered frankly and honestly should have clued me in that the germ of their comeuppance had sprouted, and the next stage of the embarrassing conversations about sex had begun.
Sometimes our conversations were clinical, and those were never embarrassing. One area in my Father’s research was in sexual differentiation in utero. There were books on sex errors freely available for my curious eyes, and so I learned about Klinefelter’s syndrome and XYY trisomy before most kids learn the facts of life. One of his colleagues was researching a particular juvenile developmental hormone, and needed 25 liters of juvenile urine – so over the course of a month or so, I supplied it. And venereal diseases? By the time we finally got to that subject in Junior High School health class, I had been seeing the pictures in the medical texts for years, and could tell stories that would even gross out the teachers! Perhaps especially the teachers, who were ill prepared for that unwanted fount of knowledge.
Sometimes our conversations were non-verbal, or even indirect. We were meant to overhear the “sex is natural, sex is good” conversations that my parents had with their friends. And my parents would leave copies of Playboy magazine on the coffee table. My sister (the budding artist) looked at them openly, but at 8 years of age, I only snuck peeks when I thought no one was looking. Once, my Father, in a vain attempt to show me off to a colleague, asked me to spell “penis” for him. His attempt was in vain, because I although I had often heard the word, I had never seen it in writing – and to my (and my father's) chagrin I misspelled it.
But sometimes, the conversations were direct, up-close, and personal, and on that sunny afternoon in the spring of 1969, the actinic glare of the spotlight was fixed inescapably on me. And of course, in retrospect, my Mother was doing me a kindness. She was relieving me of an awful responsibility, one that cripples adolescent children and mars them well into adulthood. But at the time, it was one of those embarrassing conversations about sex.
She said “Danny, I just want you to know that if you find a nice girl and you want to have sex, that it is okay.” My mind raced. I was at the age when girls held a definite appeal, but that appeal was far outweighed by the mortification of actually doing anything about it. I had not yet reached First Base with a girl. Heck, I hadn’t even gotten up to bat! I may have been intellectually precocious, but I was physically and emotionally behind the curve. I had won First Prize at the New York City Science Fair, but let’s be honest: I was a geek! I was two grades ahead of most kids my age, and two years younger than most of my classmates. Finding out that a girl I liked smoked cigarettes had wracked my emotions (I hated cigarettes), but, umm… having sex? That was theoretically possible, the requisite parts were all in place and technically functional, but realistically it was currently a practical impossibility.
“But Mom,” I replied, “I’m twelve years old!”
My Mother was relentless. She knew that she was doing a “good thing”, and that sooner or later we’d need to have this conversation anyway. So it was far better, like all other things concerning sex, to make sure that I knew the score rather than risk a potential problem. I knew all about VD (in fact my name, Daniel Victor Klein was almost Victor Daniel but for the inevitable nicknames – a joke I did not fully appreciate until I was in High School). I knew all about conception, pregnancy, and contraceptives (although how, as a literal pre-teen, would I go into a store and buy condoms?). I even knew all about abortion (because even though Roe v. Wade would not be decided for another four years, my maternal Grandfather was a doctor who had performed abortions). And we had been through Greenwich Village in the 1960’s, so I knew all about what could go wrong when you gave in to too much of a good thing. What I didn’t know about was love beyond a childish crush, or quite frankly, about lust. My Mother was quite clearly making the distinction between the two, yet I was ignorant of both. “I know, Danny,” she said, “I just want you to know that it’s okay. You should just be careful.” Reminding me about contraception, of course.
“But Mom,” I insisted, “I’m twelve years old!”
They say that people with near-death experiences see their whole life flash before their eyes. I am exaggerating when I say that I wanted to die, but I certainly wanted this excruciating experience to end. The 20-minute ride home from school was going to take about 47 hours at the rate that my time was dilating, and if I ever did have a near-death experience, I certainly did not want to flash back upon this particular sequence of events. But revenge, when it comes, even if it comes innocently and on the heels of a well-intentioned turn of phrase, is an emotion to be savored. In the slow-motion of my squirming back-seat torture, my Mother was relishing every morsel of her revenge. “Yes,” she reiterated, “but it is important for you to know. Some day you will find a nice girl, and I want you to remember what I said. Too many kids feel guilty about sex, and I want you to know that it is okay.” She was giving me the old “sex is natural, sex is good” talk, but this time I wasn’t just overhearing it – it was aimed right at me! The Playboy magazine wasn’t on the coffee-table, it was being handed to me, open to the gatefold! And all those medical texts suddenly featured real people, and I might be one of them. The problem was…
“But Mom,” the broken record reiterated, “I’m twelve years old!”
What else could I say? I didn’t have the words. Girls scare me? Girls fascinate me? I wish I wasn’t twelve years old, and I really really wish we weren’t having this conversation? All completely true in retrospect, but I think I may also have been asking permission to be a kid just a little bit longer… And apparently, that was okay, too, because the rest of the drive home we talked about other things, watched the budding trees go by, and were a were a mostly-normal Mom with her semi-normal pre-teenager. And although I still knew that my Mom was a little crazy, this time I didn’t go to my Father and repeat the uncomfortable experience with him.
But in spite of my mortification, I did remember that conversation. So when I finally found that nice girl and lost my virginity in college, I knew it was okay. Even though it was a little scary, I sure as hell didn’t feel guilty about it. I even made sure that there was adequate contraception in place! My Mother may indeed be crazy, but she ain’t stupid! And we still have our conversations about sex. The only thing that has changed is that they aren’t that embarrassing any more. Either that, or I have just gotten used to it.