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Commentaries: Clueless in South Minneapolis

When I wrote about sex education -- or the lack of it -- last week, it triggered a long-lost memory of the cold winter Saturday my mother decided to tell my sister and me about the birds and bees. I was in fifth grade and my sister was in fourth. The need to educate us in this area must have been on Mom's mind awhile because when she hollered up the stairs for us to come to the kitchen immediately, she'd already stacked a pile of books on the gray Formica table. We ran into the kitchen and Mom said to sit down. I thought we were in trouble because of the serious look on her face but was relieved when she offered us hot chocolate. A scolding was never accompanied by hot chocolate.

My sister, 14 months younger but light years ahead of me, crooked her neck and ran her index finger down the spines of the books. She read aloud the how to talk to your children about sex titles and said, "Oh, Ma, we know all about this stuff." Mom didn't get angry at the "Ma" reference, a term she hated. Instead, she heaved her shoulders and let out what can only be called a sigh of relief. "Really?" she asked. My sister turned to me with a look that double-dared me to disagree. I nodded my head up and down and said, "Oh, sure," as confidently as I could. My sister ran back up the stairs to the bedroom we shared but I hung around the kitchen to see where my mother would put the books that held the secrets I knew nothing about.

I don't know why Mom chose that Saturday afternoon to tell us the facts of life. Maybe it was because a boy I'd met at the park was coming over to visit. I'd made his acquaintance the previous Saturday at the skating rink a few blocks away. He was a year older than me and lived on the opposite side of the park and went to public school. It was the 1950s when we Catholics were allowed to be friends with kids who were a different religion but I knew my crush wouldn't amount to anything because I could only marry a Catholic. That hadn't stopped me from letting him hold my hand when we skated, though.

I was supposed to meet the boy at the skating rink that Saturday but it was too cold. Somehow, he found my telephone number and invited me to his house. His mother would come to get me. Mom wouldn't hear of it but said he could spend the afternoon at our home. We could have hot chocolate and watch TV. Play Monopoly or Parcheesi. Not Spin the Bottle, as my sister suggested. Was that the trigger that had pushed my mother to put the how-to books on the table? Did Mom fear he might try to kiss me? She shouldn't have worried. I never would have let him put his lips on mine. That's how you get a baby. I knew that much.