Mom kept the cupboard bare during my childhood. Bare of taboo topics and shaming responses, that is.
She was never a prude. Far from it, in fact. We watched steamy movies together, and she didn’t ban sexy books from the library in my bedroom, and we chatted about all sorts of “off-limits” topics.
Meanwhile, my friends had home lives filled with sex-silence. Too many of them had too few factual conversations with credible, knowledgeable adults about sex and sexuality.
Mom, on the other hand, gave me my fill of talk about human love and intimacy, including the sweet and the sour. Weirdly, though, there seems to be a shift these days, and it’s caught me off guard.
Now in her 80s, Mom doesn’t much like sex talk—or sexy movies, or books for that matter. A while back, she even left the room during a sizzling scene in a movie, later telling me that she doesn’t like to look at that “stuff.” This remark came from the woman I watched Lady Chatterley’s Lover with, leaving me confused, and I’m trying to sort it all out.
A Catholic who came of age in the 1940s and 1950s, Mom was taught that sin was baked into most of the human experience.
Excuse me, I misspoke. Where Mom's childhood education is concerned, SIN! got baked into nearly all delectable delights, particularly the fleshly delights.
Sexy fantasies. SIN!
Pre-marital sex. SIN!!
Sapphic sex. SIN!!!!!
From Mom's own childhood stories about dark confessionals and parochial education, I learned about venial sin. Venial sin is all about those slight sins, the kind that don’t damn the Soul to everlasting suffering. Still, they require that the repentant sinner seek absolution from a priest. Also, I learned about mortal sins, the graver of the two types of sin, the kind that supposedly threatened one's very Soul.
That's the world of Mom's youth, and over the years, I’ve I marveled:
How had Mom been able to resist the indoctrination that S.E.X. is a S.I.N.? How had she avoided filling our home with sex-shame messages?
Somehow, she did. She opened her home to all my friends, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, race, culture, never hissing in my ear about certain relationships, or people, being forbidden.
So, dear one, you’ll understand how caught off guard I was when she read my debut novel, Strange Attractors, and she started texting me.
Before I continue, let me be clear:
I’m not making fun of my mother. I’m not denigrating her. Again, I’m just trying to make sense of this shift where sex is concerned. Her texts are messages of love, absent of malice, but I think I’m catching shadows in them, shadows cast by old shame.
“You handled [sex] very discreetly,” Mom texted me. Over the days, the weeks, she kept proclaiming to me that my scenes of sexual intimacy weren't offensive or distasteful. As much as I loved her enthusiasm for Strange Attractors, those comments also bother me.
I know. I know. I should be talking with her instead of writing this. But it’s like the very language Mom and I shared about sex and sexuality changed, and I haven’t figured out how to learn a new language — or if I want to learn one.
I’m confused, but I’m also deeply grateful. Mom has clutched my debut novel to her chest, her eyes watery blue, telling me, “I’ll read it again.” But she tags on—like a strange punctuation mark I don’t quite understand—that I handled the moments of fleshly delight in Strange Attractors “well.”
Truly, I see the sincerity in her eyes. She’s proud of me. She’s happy for me. Her daughter wanted to be a published novelist and became one. Mom’s ecstatic for me.
Still, I see the shadows of shame, especially when she suddenly declares, “At least you didn’t say vagina.”
Vagina? That’s the ingredient that makes a scene tasteful and non-offensive — as opposed to distasteful and offensive. Vagina? Really?!? My youth had been absent of genital-shame. So, count me surprised when the woman who taught me NOT to hate the female body now seems squeamish about the V-word.
I’ll be sorting this out for a while. Or maybe, I’ll just leave it be, at least where Mom’s concerned. After all, my lapsed-Catholic mother had been raised to regard sin as an inescapable part of the human condition, and yet she had spared me much of those noxious teachings. Okay, so she doesn’t like the V-word; I don’t much either. There are juicier, lusher, more accurate words I prefer.
But I do believe...my next book will be liberally sprinkled with Vaginas(or more accurately...Vulvas).