We were looking for answers

Long before Scout Finch asked her Uncle Jack what a “whore lady” was, children have been putting their parents on the spot with their unfiltered questions.

We didn’t have to ask where babies came from. We found that information readily available right outside on Russo Street where scores of under-12s believed that they could accurately answer the question. It was there that my own introduction to sex ed began with: “Want to hear something gross?”

The information that ensued was confusing and irritating.

No. The questions we asked the adults in our lives, our parents, were a bit more immediate. Even practical.

“What does Heaven look like? And why can’t you remember it?” I asked my dad once. He admitted he did not know and could not remember. Then he asked why I could not remember it myself, seeing as how I had just left a few years earlier to come live with him. Hmmm.

One summer day, my sister asked my mom what ‘fongool’ meant (which according to slangcity.com is actually Va’ a fare in culo in real Italian, often shortened to vaffanculo, or just fanculo.) My mother coolly considered my sister, behind whom I was hiding. “It means up your fanny,” my mother said. She turned away before adding, “And do not EVER, EVER, EVER say it. To ANYONE.”

This was curious to me. Up your fanny? Who thinks of such things? I became even more perplexed a year or so later when someone on the street told me that putting up the middle finger was cool and bad at the same time, a revelation I took back to Mom.

“Don’t do that,” my mother said. “EVER.”

“So why is the middle finger bad?” I asked her.

She looked at me. I looked at her. She was so pretty.

“Well,” she said. “It means up your fanny.”

Of course it did.

My sister soon followed up with the ‘ugatz” or (o cazzo) question. That was one Mom couldn’t or wouldn’t answer, except to say that it was not to be repeated, under any and all circumstances, in anyone’s presence. EVER. Until the end of TIME. First I wondered why it was so offensive, since none of us seemed to know what it actually meant. Then I incorrectly assumed it had something to do with the fanny as well, since this body part seemed to be a particularly sensitive subject around grown ups.

Throughout the ensuing decades, I thoroughly understood that such matters of anatomy might not be appropriately addressed in polite company. But in the safety and security of the home, we could ask as many questions about sex, politics, religion and anatomy as we wished, provided our innocence was still intact and our curiosity sincere.

As a parent, I promised myself that I would be as cool as my folks were in this regard, no matter what the question. I even answered questions before they were asked.

“Your cousin is in Auntie’s belly. She will come as soon as she’s ready.”

“Really?” came the response. “What is she doing in there?”

“Sleeping. Or listening to you.”

And so on.

What I didn’t anticipate was that there would one day come the o cazzo questions — simple ones that I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, answer.

So my toddler grew up knowing that babies grew inside their moms, thanks to a seed that was planted by their dads. Metaphorical, but clear. Concise.

But when my three-year-old, who was fond of having meaningful conversations while we were in transit, asked from his car seat how the baby comes out, I was stumped.

He even tried to help me.

“Do they cut it out?” he asked, offering it up like a sacrifice.

“Um. Sometimes,” I said. I was dedicated to telling the truth. And despite my commitment to the Atticus Finch approach to children’s questions (when a child asks a question, answer it truthfully), I was tongue-tied.

“If they don’t cut it out, then how ELSE does it come out?” he asked. (The kids in my old neighborhood would say that the baby comes out of the mother’s “belly button,” a perplexing notion that even back then seemed physiologically illogical. Preposterous even.)

“Um.” I said.

“I just want to know,” he said. “How does the baby GET OUT?” This was a kid with a Tickle Me Elmo. How to explain?

“I guess it’s a mystery,” I said.

He wasn’t really buying it. But he politely accepted the response.

In the ensuing weeks, I worried about the unanswered question. It might be weighing on him. But he seemed okay. Even after I crafted a beautiful response (thanks to advice from my own amused mother), he didn’t bother asking again. His chatter focused on something new and interesting every day, and life went on. But it wasn’t over yet.

It was several months later, when we were busy finishing construction of our new home. In the final weeks of completion, we would drive our child there daily to survey the project’s progress.

Just before our certificate of occupancy was issued, my now four-year-old and I visited the house to meet the contractor who had just given me our new remote garage door opener.

I hit the button from inside the car and the garage door opened.

“Wow! How does that button work?” my son asked happily from the back seat.

“I really don’t know,” I said.

He emitted a long, frustrated sigh. “That’s TWO mysteries! How does the garage door open, and HOW DOES THE BABY COME OUT.”

So when some years passed and the real questions became imminent as my son’s school prepared for the sex ed curriculum, I did what I know best. I bought a book. And it was full of questions. And really, really good answers. With illustrations.

I coolly presented it to my embarrassed son, telling him that now that he had answers to most any question about this topic, he was not to EVER, EVER, EVER, share this book with ANYONE. EVER. Until the end of TIME.

Looking at the world through a unique lens, with love, logic and a sense of humor. Former journalist, now teacher of high school journalism and English.

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