The winter of 2008 was a bleak one. In late October my brother died suddenly and a couple of weeks later, my grandmother told us that her cancer was back. We were all looking forward to spring of one kind or another. My grandmother, Poochie, started treatment and started making plans for spring. We both loved cooking and I remember that her spring inspiration was a big pressure canning pot and cookbook. She was going to teach me how to can, but first we had to have a garden.
I will always remember the sound of her voice chattering and giving me instructions about what she called our “little kitchen garden”. She had a beautiful garden plot with split-rail fencing, statuaries, established herbs, and a picturesque flood of yellow Iris, but although it could clearly be viewed from the kitchen, as a novice gardener I could see nothing little about it.
Honestly, I have to admit that I was a reluctant gardener; I was busy with work and a toddler and then in March I found out I was pregnant. One morning soon after, in the garden with Poochie, both of us suffering from nausea, I absent-mindedly complained about my new aversion to coffee. She looked at me with wide eyes and a sly smile and said, “Well, Becky, do you think you might be pregnant?” But Poochie didn’t relent on the gardening plan, even as she became weaker and I became more pregnant, so I tried my best to pick up the slack. We never made it to pickles and jelly and canned tomatoes but we did have a beautiful crop of zinnias by mid-summer that I cut and made into arrangements for her bedroom.
I love gardening now and most days when I am working in my garden I think about my grandmother. I’ve even figured out some basic canning. There is so much to appreciate about gardening: eating fresh foods, the easing of your grocery store bill, the aesthetic of gardening, the wealth of knowledge to learn about the science of gardening, and the endless care and chores of gardening that translate into plenty of hard-labor for my kids. And just recently, gardening has opened the door for me to approach an important topic with my kids: sex.
Having THE TALK with my kids has been at the absolute furthest nether-regions of my mind. I grew up hearing about the sexual revolution, a conquest of earlier generations, and the freedom that we, especially women, gained at that time. These days, I’m terrified by how free and casual sex has become and for the way in which every aspect of modern life has become sexualized. I recently read that sex has become too cheap and too common for even Playboy Magazine to sell anymore; this spring they are remodeling their magazine, replacing nude photographs of women with photos of women who are half-clad. Now there will be one more magazine objectifying women that our children can pick up and legally purchase. It may be more sophisticated to glorify Hugh Hefner and call Playboy Magazine “groundbreaking”, but I am wholeheartedly hoping that Playboy falls right off the precipice they created when they broke that ground.
Last week the NY Times published an article about a sexting scandal in Colorado and someone with authority was quoted as saying that kids need to be taught how to practice “safer sexting with trusted partners”. You can rationalize all day that teaching abstinence to teenagers is impractical but go ahead and try to choose from your child’s adolescent peers a “safe” partner with whom you would entrust nude photos of your child. We are so accustomed to that word, safe being used in tandem with the concept of sex that we forget that we wouldn’t need to use it so much if sex weren’t such a casual phenomenon. I want my kids to understand that preventing or eluding the physical consequences of having casual sex does not prove that sex is, can be, or should be casual. In other words, I don’t want anyone else teaching them about sex!
And this is the crux of why I have struggled to overcome my squeamishness about the talk; once I hand over the keys to sex, my kids take that knowledge out into the world and find that there’s a faster, shinier, more dangerous model. Entrusting my kids to this Brave New World, and trusting my kids to live faithfully and deliberately of their own accord is not going to be easy; I may need to be pushed or dragged into some faithful, deliberate living in it myself. Enter several small, yet serendipitous events that individually have been something to laugh about, put aside to think about later, but as a whole gave me new impetus to begin conceiving of the talk.
About a year and a half ago the girls and I were in a crowded hospital waiting room looking forward to the birth of my nephew. It had been a long day and the girls had been promised a baby; they didn’t understand the delay. In the midst of several sets of anxious families and grandparents, my eldest blurted out, “Geez, when are they going to cut him out?”. There was the obvious callousness about filleting her beloved aunt but something else didn’t quite register right about this gross misunderstanding coming from my 7 yr old. Several months later another mother shared with me that her two daughters had been present for the birth of her third child and although I couldn’t put my finger on the extent of my feelings, one thing I did feel was a tinge of envy that this mother had one less thing to explain to a bug-eyed 8 yr old.
And then there was the visit from our friends from Cayman this summer. I was waiting to tell them in person about the new person I was “bearing” and Jody came bearing a surprise of her own: a book that explains sex to young kids. She knows me well and understood that, not only was this topic not on my mind but that I would need encouragement to address it.
But even with all of these subtle and not so subtle signs, it was gardening that helped me to come to terms with having the talk. Several weeks ago our fall garden was lushly beautiful: climbing beans, cucumbers, bright beet leaves, oversized chard, huge, trailing pumpkin leaves and flowers, radishes, and furry little carrot leaves. We’ve been studying life science this fall, learning about how living things are classified, cell theory, needs of living things and vascular plants. A couple of weeks ago we began learning about fertilization and the male and female parts of plants so our garden became our classroom on more than one occasion. As I watched my daughters pollinating pumpkins and cucumbers by hand, I suddenly realized how I wanted to frame this socially-distorted and complicated topic of sex.
If I can convey that the science of life is like the science of gardening, then my little gardeners will wholly understand the mystery and the sanctity of sex. They are already amazed by the processes that they never realized were going on around them: different parts of flowers, pollination, fertilization, the fact that their favorite veggies are ripened ovaries. And they already have a sense of awe for the majesty that created all of these processes to work in unison. The awe that comes with the understanding of sex as the key to the gift of life, and not as a casual pastime, is what I want my kids’ first impression to be.
I realize that there’s nothing novel about this concept or about using it to discuss reproduction but it certainly isn’t what Poochie and I were about as we gardened through that last spring of her life. If I could tell her about the great epiphany I had while teaching my kids to work in the garden and offered her the credit for planting the very first seed, her eyes would twinkle mischievously and she would give me that naughty cackle of hers. But then she would become serious, as she did when imparting sacred secrets and must do’s, “Don’t forget to tell them to always plant a row or two of zinnias.”