I was raised Catholic. I’ve heard there may be a link between that and the fact I have four siblings. But, I, like most children, believe my parents had sex five times. And that’s it. Don’t worry, I’ll change topics as soon as possible, because it’s parents having sex and well… I don’t think I need to explain myself. Like every small child, one of my first questions with more complexity than “What’s that?” was “How are babies made?” I remember this vividly. I was in the back seat of my family’s green Astro van and my mom locked eyes with me in the rear view mirror.
“Well, when you get married. One day. When you are much, much older than you are now ― twenty-five, let’s go with twenty-five ― you’ll want to have babies. So, you’re going to have to get down on your knees … and pray to God. You have to pray and pray and pray until God answers your prayers and puts a baby in your belly.”
If that were the case, then never mind what I said before. My parents never had sex, my mom just prayed a whole lot. Luckily, I found out the truth about conception and avoided a lot of confusion as a teenager.
It’s important for you to know that sex was not something ― and still is not something ― discussed in my family. My brother once asked my mom the difference between boys and girls and got this response: “Well, Andrew, boys wear bomber jackets and girls don’t.” Simple as that. And if we happened to see a bull climb onto the back of a cow, they were giving each other piggyback rides. The baby calves came from the mama cows praying to God, obviously.
Since I promised, I will now switch to the topic of Saskatchewan and the feeling of impending doom I get when traveling through the “land of the living sky.” It has nothing to do with the lack of gas stations or the plague of grasshoppers, although neither of those helps. It stems from dead pets and deep-seated trust issues with my parents. It’s common for children to be told that a dead animal has been “sent to live on a farm.” The problem with that response in our family is, well, we lived on a farm. If my parents had told me they sent my dog Patches to a farm, I might have been more than a little suspicious. Instead, Patches now lives in Saskatchewan, along with my cats Scratchy, Bo, and Zeus. (Zeus, I recently found out, fell victim to the terrible disease Run-over-by-the-tractor-itis.) Unless we found the body or witnessed the death, which is surprisingly common on a farm, we were told the same story: “Well, we thought it would be a good idea if (insert pet’s name here) went to live with (insert distant relative’s name here, i.e. cousin’s cousin, uncle’s sister once removed) in Saskatchewan, because they wanted a (insert animal type here) and we have so many.”
I won’t pretend that my parents were alone in making sure we didn’t find out the truth about Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy until as late as possible in our lives. This is a necessary part of childhood, and children deprived of these holiday creatures are deprived of an imagination later on in life. I distinctly remember looking out my window and seeing my mother hiding eggs around the yard on Easter morning. When confronted, she admitted that because the Easter Bunny is so busy, she agreed to help him hide eggs for us. “Duh, Nikki,” I thought to myself, “There’s no way that the chewed up carrot left on the floor and the smudged, dirty paw prints were left by someone other than the Easter Bunny. No one would go through that much effort to make me believe in a six-foot tall rabbit that delivers chocolate, right?” And when my siblings were old enough to be in cahoots with my parents, they convinced me that those were reindeer hooves I heard on the roof in the middle of the night.
The need to punish myself was high priority when I was younger. Punishment in the form of encouraging my awkward stage to last longer than the standard three to five years. My mom told me that if I wore her glasses for too long, my eyes would become accustomed to them and I would inevitably need glasses. She thought this was a bad thing. I, on the other hand, thought that glasses would make my twelve-year-old self look smarter, more respectable, and maybe even force people to give me unnecessary attention. So, the most logical action I could think of was to tell my family I was sick, stay home from church/school/various family activities, and wear my mom’s spare set of glasses for hours at a time. There must be a higher power out there that made my mom’s words untrue, and I cannot thank him or her enough.
My grandpa passed away five years ago, but remains an influence in my life. As small children, my siblings and I would sleep over at his house. He would wake us up in the morning with the smell of Sunny Boy cereal and the wise words: “Eat your oatmeal kids, so you’ll have hair on your chest like me.” We would eat it right up, because honestly, what’s funnier than a child with a hairy chest? I still refuse to swallow gum because of my grandpa. He told me once that he swallowed a piece of gum by accident, it stuck to the inside of his stomach, and it took him seven years to pass. I’m still expecting to see the piece of spearmint gum I swallowed when I was fourteen.
Before I conclude, there are a few things that I want to clear up about myself:
1. I did not get chest hair from eating oatmeal;
2. I will never move to Saskatchewan for fear of my life; and
3. I have never owned a bomber jacket.
George Orwell once said that euphemisms are “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” By telling me that my pets were living in Saskatchewan, my father avoided admitting that he accidentally ran over the dog, or that the cat had cancer and had to be put down. In lying to me, my father saved himself from looking like a murderer. By planting chewed up carrot on the kitchen floor, my parents made the idea of the Easter Bunny believable, helping my imagination grow. By telling me that oatmeal would give me chest hair, my grandpa not only gave me an excuse not to eat that mush, but also a memory.
Euphemisms and lies are a part of most childhood memories. Parents “beat around the bush” (to use a dying metaphor; sorry Orwell) to protect their children from the negative or inappropriate aspects of life, such as death and sex. These “bad habits which spread by imitation” that Orwell refers to, will be spread. Even though I am not married and I do not have any children, I can tell you I will never tell my five-year-old child about the birds and the bees. My children will never be deprived of Santa Claus, they will get a dollar for every single one of their loose teeth, and they will not chew gum until they are old enough to spit it out.