You can find at least three topics of conversation in any American middle class family that are both sacred and taboo in some form or fashion - religion, money and sex. These are the three subjects we are all supposed to know about, but can't bring ourselves to talk about, at least not directly. And this makes it difficult for all of us because, let's face it, religion, money and sex go to the heart of what life is! They are, in fact, so interconnected that any one would not survive without the existence of the other two.

 

Take religion, for example. Any religion you can name would lose nearly half of it's doctrine were it not for sex; and lacking money there would be no point in even discussing the other half. Or what about money, whose primary means of transfer is via sex and religion? And finally consider sex. Now there are those who insist, and not unpopularly so, that sex - true, loving, wholesome sex - could easily exist without money or religion, and would probably be the better for it too. But have no doubt about it. Enjoy enough good, loving, wholesome sex and you'll eventually begat the need for money. The more sex you have the more money you'll need, and that's when the praying starts. 

Our Mom and Pop took us to church every Sunday, which should tell you something about their sex life. After five kids Mom used to say, "Honey, when you have a family, always have one more child than you think you can afford." I believe what she must have meant was, "...honey, just try to avoid having three or four more than you can afford." Parents never say exactly what they mean. And kids never hear exactly what they say.

Kids are full of questions. They don't always ask them, but they have them. Good parents anticipate this and try to provide answers without having to be asked the questions. Better parents just drive their kids to school instead of letting them ride the bus, which is where most kids get their answers anyway. And timing is everything. Mom and Pop couldn't afford to drive us all to school. Thus, because of the money situation, our parents had to resort to talking to us directly and explaining things flat out. So I, the first of five children, at 11 years of age received the inaugural Bernhardt family "birds and bees" presentation. Timing wise, however, they may have jumped the gun as up to this point I'd really had no questions - which is not how I felt when the whole thing was over...

Santa Claus had a big cult of personality in our house. It was a cult in the Mao-ist tradition, with explanations for a whole range of things that seemed to have no basis in reality. Then again, my reality was that year after year cool stuff appeared under the Christmas tree, which is why us kids easily accepted the notions that Santa could:

  1. drop down a chimney that led to an oil burning furnace and emerge unscathed,
  2. instantly alter his mode of transportation from a sleigh (where there was snow) to a Jeep (where there was not),
  3. eat cookies and eggnog at millions of houses within a twenty-four hour period without benefit of a stomach pump.

Throughout the years while all this was going on, there were accelerated rumblings amongst my friends at school about what was really up with the Santa Claus thing. Not having any older brothers or sisters to tell me differently, I resisted this. As long as consistent evidence, no matter how circumstantial, of Mr. Claus appeared under my Christmas tree every year, I was willing to accept it prima facie. If something ain't broke, don't fix it! Now why is all this important? Because I had not completely disenjoined myself from the idea of Santa Claus as a celestial being when the day arrived wherein Mom invited me to go for a walk. 

And so, on that spring day, I walked with her to a little hill in our back yard where we sat down with the big family medical dictionary. She was eloquent. She was inspired. She explained to me about one-celled organisms, eggs and sperms, and how when they got close to each other they combined and then started to divide. She explained how eventually those cells would start to take form and slowly, magically become a human being - or at least something like a human being on a string that was willing to spend most of its time upside-down and hold its breath for nine months. 

We looked at pictures of a fetus in the womb. She explained the wondrous changes that would happen in young women around me, changes designed to ensure that they could someday sustain this nine month landlord-tenant arrangement ('cause God knows men were never going to have to do it). And she told me there were things about being a woman that I should never make fun of, that I should respect those things and respect women for having to go through them. I was awestruck. I said, yes I would always respect that and never be unkind about it and truly babies were a wonderful thing... And then she waited for me to ask questions. But I had none. I had no questions at all, for after that whole presentation it still hadn't occurred to me that MOMMY WAS KISSING SANTA CLAUS, let alone WHY Mommy was kissing Santa Claus! Yet this should not be surprising for one very good reason. The one thing that Mommy left out of the whole presentation, the one thing that could have made it all come clear, and changed my bus life forever - was HOW THE SPERM GOT TO THE EGG! So I had no questions. None at all. After all, if Santa could get down a chimney that fed into an oil burning furnace without bodily injury, why couldn't a sperm just drive a Jeep?

Enter Pop. It was not long after my session with Mom that Pop and I went outside to haul wood. Pop would always preface such episodes with the question, "Hey, want a project?", which meant that on that particular day you were not gonna be hiking up the hill to go play Putt-Putt.

It was in this same business-like manner that Pop took his turn at the Sex Ed podium and added the Yin to Mom's Yang. He was quick, practical and to the point. 

"Well, did your Mom have that talk with you?", he asked.

"Yeah." 

There was a pause. Then the earth thundered. It was like Moses giving the 11th Commandment. "Son, a man has two heads, and he's got to learn to think with the right one!!!"

And that was that. At least that's all I remember. He might have said something else about the proper protocol to follow if one got a girl pregnant and the financial implications of such. If so it likely accounts for why I have never bought a Jeep. But that one sentence reverberates in my psyche to this day. And it finally got me to questioning - Santa Claus that is. It was right then that I began to suspect that the world was far more complex and mysterious than what I had originally guessed. And I thought, maybe there was something deeper to Santa Claus than hanging out at shopping malls and doling out freebies. 

And that stuff about thinking with the right head, what did that mean? Oh, yeah! I remembered how Mom and Pop said they didn't want to have my brothers and I circumcised when we were little because it seemed too cruel. So maybe THAT was the head Pop was referring to, 'cause he never seemed to have any similar concerns about taking a pair of scissors to my other head! And that must have been why guys were always told to leave the toilet seat down. Girls never got told that, just guys. So it must have been about the respect for women thing. Don't leave the seat up so that a woman might fall into the toilet bowl in the middle of the night. And don't laugh if they do fall in. That would certainly be in the Christmas spirit. 

Oh yes, it all started to come clear. I was becoming an adult; and I vowed to take my new found understanding of adulthood seriously. And the next day I started listening on the bus a lot more.

Years after that - many years - I came home from college one day and said to Mom, "You know, when you and Pop explained the birds and the bees to me, how come you never talked about plumbing?"

Mom didn't even blink, "Yes I did," she said. "I gave you that little book to read."

"What book! You never gave me any 'little' book!", I protested.

"This one...", she went to the closet and fished out a small, children's book. "This one honey, the one that shows cows and chickens... and people." 

She handed it to me. I had never, ever seen that book before. I opened it and took a good look. I took a long look. And that book changed my life. 

Nooooo, my kids are never gonna ride the bus!

- Eric