All the political talk about abstinence education reminds me of something that happened when I was thirteen years old. After my mother and younger sister had left the kitchen table one night, going off to struggle once again with the Problem of Evil Homework, my father lobbed a three-pack of Trojans into my lap.
“You know what those are?” he asked.
Schoolboys didn’t use the word “condoms” in those days. “Yeah. They’re ... um ... scumbags, right?”
“Exactly. Carry those with you wherever you go,” he said.
“I don’t think I need them yet.”
He rolled his eyes. “F’chrissake,” he said. “By the time I was your age, I’d been laid, relayed and parleyed.”
“Did Mom say it’s OK for me to have these?”
“What are you, a sissy? Why would I ask your mother?”
That made me laugh, because I remembered how he’d acted five years before. Here’s the story.
I was about halfway through third grade, and I had come to the realization that my parents were never going to show me where the seed store was.
Mom had repeated the story to me dozens of times: Dad had planted a seed in her belly. Eventually, that seed, which I envisioned as a kind of pink and slimy Chocolate Baby, became me.
We lived in an apartment in the Bronx, so I knew very little about gardening. The only flora we had in the house were Mom's snake plants, about ten of them, which migrated from one knickknack shelf to another every few weeks. Mom called it "redecorating" every time she moved a snake plant and rotated her figurines. Sometimes the snake plants were surrounded by dancing porcelain elves; at other times they formed the background for a Bo-Peep scene. I once cajoled her into letting me use one as a cactus in a mini-drama that I was acting out for myself with plastic cowboys. The idea was that the bad guys would keep shooting the cactus instead of the hero hiding behind it. Bang, blam, p-shoing! The cactus would fall over dead. After its third demise, my mother confiscated it, and placed it back where Nature intended it to be, between Madame Pompadour and Neptune.
What I did know about gardening, I had learned from a children's record popular in the '50s. An unctuous boy's voice sang: "Carrots grow from carrot seeds." I couldn't imagine a child that I identified with less than this gooey paragon of stick-to-it-iveness. His story took up two sides of a big orange 78, but the gist of it was that he insisted on planting a seed even though his whole family told him he was full of crap. I often wondered why he would go to all that trouble for one lousy carrot, when he easily could have bought a whole can at the grocery. Still, he bragged: "I watered it; I pulled the weeds."
But who watered me and pulled my weeds?
Certainly not Dad, despite what Mom told me. He just wasn't a planting kind of guy. I tried to picture him as a farmer, in overalls and a straw hat. I'd see him standing in the middle of a field of corn, removing a piece of straw from his mouth, and, with the other hand, taking a puff of the Pall Mall that he always held between his index and middle fingers. The rest of his cigarette hand would be balled up in a half-fist, carrying a few seeds, about 20 Green Giant niblets drenched in butter. That's what corn seeds looked like in my mind. Every now and then, Dad would bend over and dig a little hole, move his pinky to let loose one of the niblets, and cover it up again, stray ashes and all. He'd pull a green plastic drinking glass full of water from his back pocket, and dribble a few drops on the seed the way Mom watered her snake plants at home. Then he'd stand up and scratch the back of one leg with the toe of his opposite foot, as he frequently did when he was trying to get his bearings. After a few seconds, he'd replace the glass in his pocket, take a drag on his cigarette, and then put the straw back in his mouth and chew it the same way he worked a toothpick.
"How come Dad never planted anything else?" I asked Mom.
"Well, he also planted your sister."
"No, I mean flowers. Where did Dad learn to plant seeds?"
"I think when he was in the army."
If Dad was in earshot of this conversation, he would call out, "A lot before that." But he was always suspiciously noncommittal about the rest of the story.
"Where'd you get the seed for me, Dad?"
"Ask your mother."
"I thought you planted it."
"Well, we kind of did it together. But she remembers better. Ask her."
"Did you get the seed for my sister at the same store where you got me? Who cost more?"
"I think you might have been on sale. Your mother remembers."
But my mother's recollection was hazy, too.
"Where's the seed store? Is it on Fordham Road near Alexander's? Can you show me it next time we go shopping?"
"You know, I must have forgotten where the store is. Isn't that funny? I just ... I just can't think of it."
Yeah, right. This was beyond credibility. Mom never forgot anything. She knew the words to almost every song ever written.
It was clearly time for eight-year-old sarcasm."Oh, right," I said. "You got your kids there, and you can't remember? Come on, Ma. Where is it? What's such a big deal about a store? Just tell me where it is. I promise I won't buy any seeds. "
Finally, in desperation one evening when I was particularly determined, Mom and Dad waited until my sister had gone to sleep. Then they went and powwowed in a corner of the kitchen while I half-heartedly watched Father Knows Best and sulked. I knew that they knew that I was trying to listen to their conversation because they were speaking in Yiddish. Yiddish had been Dad's only language until he was six years old, and he was completely fluent. Mom's Yiddish, on the other hand, consisted of only about a hundred words, most of them either names of foods or synonyms for "shmuck." I could tell whenever she started having language difficulties, because she'd suddenly resort to whispered English. Then Dad would say, emphatically, "Sha, Honey. Sha. Die kinder! Shvubb'm hubb'm tsubb'm." At least that's what it sounded like to me.
The next thing I knew, Mom was rushing upstairs to a neighbor. "I'm going up to Barb's to borrow a book for you. We'll read it together when your program is over. Did you finish your math?"
"What kind of book?"
"We'll read it together when your program is over."
"You just said that. What's the book about?"
Dad retired to the living-room couch. In his own way, my father knew best, too, and what was best for him was to lie there making believe he was taking a nap. Many years later, he confessed that he’d spent the next hour staring into the armrest, listening and giggling.
It wasn't long before Mom burst back through the door, carrying a thin book against her chest. Her arms were crossed around it, shielding it from my vision. The message was clear: something in that book was dynamite. She summoned me from the television and led me into the bathroom. She lowered the toilet seat lid, and sat on it, gesturing for me to sit on the edge of the bathtub.
This was not as odd a place for an intimate chat as it sounds, because it was the only private area in the entire apartment. In the one bedroom, my sister was already snuggled in for the night, snoring contentedly. In the living-room, where Mom and Dad slept on a fold-out high-rise, Dad was supposedly taking his undisturbable snooze on the couch. The uncleaned detritus from dinner still filled the kitchen, and, anyway, the room's acoustics made noises echo throughout the house; we didn't want to disturb Dad while he was feigning sleep and having a giddy panic.
Mom opened the book. I suppose it was something like What to Tell Your Precocious Nuisance About Sex. But I never knew, because she didn't show me the cover. Nor did she read it directly to me, or even hold up any of the pictures. Instead, she silently skimmed each page, and translated it into Idiotese. After every few pages, she'd add: "Remember, you can only do this if you're married."
I didn't see why I'd want to do it at all. The whole thing struck me as pretty messy. The book — or Mom's rendition of it — suppressed discussion of pleasure or love or emotional gratification of any kind. And that's not the only thing I didn't get. For a long time thereafter, I was under the impression that the man peed into the woman. I suppose the surroundings in which I had learned the information subliminally planted that seed in my head. In any case, the entire procedure sounded pretty inconvenient for both parties.
"You and Dad did that?"
"There's no seed store?"
"No. The seed was in his body."
"So are you telling me there's no seed store anywhere? Anywhere? In the whole world?"
"Uh-huh. This is what married people do here, and in Europe, and in Africa, and all over."
That sounded like baloney to me. "Nanny did it, too?"
"Yeah, Nanny, too. Everybody. But remember, you have to be married." The skeptic in me kicked into high gear. There was no way that Nanny ever did that. "I can't believe there's no seed store. Are you positive?"
"What a gyp."
But it wasn't enough of a gyp to keep me from passing it on to all my friends. The very next day, I began holding forth to any kid who would listen. "Hey, guess what? There's no seed store." For a while, I had the reputation among my friends' mothers as the worst influence in the entire neighborhood, the pervert of the playground.
Most of the kids didn't believe me; about six of them grabbed each other's hands to form a circle, and danced around me, chanting "penis and vagina, penis and vagina." Jerry reached into his pants, felt himself carefully, and screamed at me, "You're lying. There's no seeds in it." Shelley’s mother never forgave me. She’s convinced to this day that he still wouldn’t know the facts of life if I hadn’t spilled the beans to him while we were riding on the seesaw.
Weeks went by, and Dad didn't say anything at all to me about my lesson. Then one night, out of the blue, he asked, "So Mom wised you up? About the seeds?"
"Yeah," I answered.
"There's more," he said, and winked. "Remind me to tell you when you're older."
"After I'm married?" I asked.
"Maybe a little bit before," he replied.
"Not today, OK? I need to take a nap."