So today, at dinner, Linn, my little girl, my baby girl, announces to everyone that, “I know what a period is.” And no, we aren’t talking about the little dot at the end of this sentence. But first, some backstory. Oh, and if you’re squeamish, leave now.
I have a strict, “anything goes” policy as far as questions my kids may ask. If you can think it, ask it. No question is too embarrassing and no subject is taboo. If I don’t know the answer, I will find it out. If I do know the answer, I will tell you in terms appropriate for your age, or, if it’s an age inappropriate question (e.g., something the younger two do not need to know), I will discuss it with you later. Unfortunately, many of these questions crop up at dinnertime and my wife and two older daughters aren’t as free thinking as I am.
It’s my fault. I noticed that the older two would balk discussing anything related to members of the opposite sex—and forget about sex, birth, puberty, drugs, or alcohol. I didn’t like that, so, seeking to change it, I instituted my current policy about ten years ago. The effect has been that the younger two children have no shame and will ask whatever’s on their mind. That’s a good thing, I think. The effect on the older two has yet to be determined, but I don’t think it’s too late. We’ll see.
So, when little Linn announced this fact, it was because she had come to me earlier that day and asked. I obliged by putting it into its simplest terms: that it was “Blood that the mommy’s tummy uses to build a safe home for the baby while it is growing. If there is no baby, the blood is not needed and comes out.” She was satisfied with this answer, and, perhaps, feeling a bit like a big girl with this new piece of grown-up knowledge, she told everyone. At dinner.
Erica is speechless. Her jaw hangs open as she gasps for breath, strangling on her shock, but Maddie and Daniel take it all in stride, stoic. But it isn’t over yet. Daniel, perhaps feeling slighted, says,
“You’re lucky. At least Dad talked to you. All he showed me were YouTube videos.”
Maddie looks at me, her eyebrows raised. I quickly explain that he is referring to a conception-under-a-microscope video I showed him to answer one of his questions after he failed to conceive how this was possible or even believe my answer. “There’s living things inside of me? Gross!” But wait. It gets better. Perhaps still feeling slighted, he then asks a question that I am totally unprepared for. For the first time, I’ve been muted, as quickly and as effectively as I was when bowled over by the back of my dad’s hand as a child.
“Dad, what’s master-bates mean?”
Erica has a heart attack.
When I was a teenager, my father told me a story about when he was a child. He was six, and, after talking to one of his neighborhood friends, asked his father (a Baptist minister and missionary to South Africa) a question at dinnertime. “Dad,” he says. “So, and so says that you and Mom f***ed five times because you have five children. Is that true?” His father responded by knocking him out of his chair with the back of his hand.
I never understood why my father told me this story until I began to reflect back on it about ten years ago. I think what he was trying to tell me was that I could ask him anything. That he would not knock me out of my chair for asking an innocent question. But he never said that. Not in so many words. But he tried.
And I couldn’t. Not really. Just like he couldn’t talk to his father.
This was one of two serious conversations I ever remember having with my father. Where he tried to do something new to him. Something foreign. Something that felt wrong. Something he was never taught to do himself by his father. But despite my not being able to talk to my father, his story has broken the cycle. I heard. I remember.
I don’t want that for my children, to be knocked from their chairs in life. And you know what? I think they know that.