Excerpt from forthcoming memoir “Announcing the Apocalypse.”
It was the middle of the afternoon. My mother’s voice was smoky and quiet, calming. I was five and a half years old.
“Billy, you and I are going to take a bath together, and I’m going to show you my breast. You know I had a mastectomy, and they removed my breast, but I’m better now, and I don’t want you to be afraid.”
I hadn’t taken a bath with my mother for as long as I could remember. She filled the bathtub with hot water, undressed me, and took off her terrycloth robe. I climbed into the tub with her, and we sat down in the clear warm bathwater. I stared at the soft pink knot of flesh where her breast had been, and at her remaining breast, and at her pale skin and brown wavy hair that smelled like vanilla. For months she had undergone cancer treatments at doctors’ offices and hospitals. She and my father spoke in hushed voices about medical appointments and treatment modalities. My eleven-year-old brother Pete had begun acting sullen and withdrawn.
My mother unfolded a washcloth and floated it on the surface of the bathwater. Like a magician with a black art cloth she created a bubble of air, pulled it down into the bath, and squeezed. A burst of bubbles rose up and fizzed on the surface. We laughed, and she repeated the trick again and again just to please me. I looked down into the bath at her dark pubic hair as it undulated in the water. The pink outline of her vagina showed through. I was fascinated. Questions went through my head. Is that where you and dad made me? Is that where you pee? But I just stared.
She noticed me looking at her. “That’s my vagina,” she said nonchalantly.
I was embarrassed. “I know,” I said.
“That’s where you came into the world.”
Both my parents shared an ease about their bodies. They met in graduate school at the University of Chicago in the early 1930s while my mother was earning her Masters in Social Work. My dad had grown up behind his mother’s cigar store on the south side of Chicago, my mother in a middle-class Episcopalian home in the suburb of Glencoe. The youngest of three sisters, she had a pragmatic view of parenting. When her pediatrician urged her to feed baby formula to my brother and me, she breastfed us both. Before my brother and I could barely talk, our parents educated us about the proper names for sex organs and bodily functions. In our house it wasn’t poo-poo and pee-pee, but rather bowel movement, urinate, anus, and penis. One Saturday afternoon I was taking a shower with my dad, and I noticed the ample dimensions of his penis.
“Dad, you have a really big one.”“Don’t worry, son, you’ll have a penis just like it when you grow up,” he said, giving me an optimistic sense about the future, at least regarding penile maturity.I pointed at my mother’s vagina submerged in the bath water. “Is that where my sister came from?”She paused and looked down at the washcloth. Pushing a strand of hair from her eyes, she said, “If your big sister had lived she would be thirteen years old now.”
Fourteen years earlier my parents’ first child, a girl, was stillborn. The umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck, and she asphyxiated inside my mother’s birth canal. Technology to detect such complications hadn’t been invented yet.
“Now, you and your brother were born because daddy and I had sexual intercourse.” She swished the washcloth around on her arms and her neck. “That’s when your father inserts his penis in my vagina, and his sperm swims up to my ovum and fertilizes it, and a baby is started.”
This sounded like an awkward science experiment. I pictured my mother and father lying on their stomachs, each in their own twin bed covered in dark gold floral coverlets, their faces buried in pillows, with their crotches connected by plumbing pipes which ran at right angles between their beds. My father would inject fluid into his end, and it would flow toward my mother, and at some point a child would result. She could see that I was bored with her explanation.
“I wanted us to take a bath together,” she said, “Because I wanted you to see my breast and not be afraid. I’m much better now with the surgery, and everything will be back to normal soon, I promise.”
In her practical, unassuming way she soaped me up, rinsed me off, and we exited the bath together. As she toweled herself off, I watched rivulets of water run down her naked body. This was my first memory of sex—furtive, secretive, and comforting.
After the bath with my mother, I began noticing women’s underwear ads in the newspaper. Every day in the Des Moines Register, Younkers Department Store ran display ads for Maidenform, Caprice, Perma-Lift, and more. I began clipping them out and storing them inside my toy UPS tractor-trailer rig—a secret and growing collection of pictures of partially clad women dressed in silken bras, girdles, and panties.
I doted on photos of local beauty queens. I was especially fond of Miss Wisconsin. The summer vacation when I was five Miss Wisconsin appeared in person inside a tent at the Wisconsin State Fair. I asked her to autograph a newspaper photo that featured her on a beach in black pumps and a pleated white swimsuit, her hands resting on her sumptuous hips. “Of course, sweetheart, she said,” and she pinched my cheek. Her dark wavy hair and soft breasts reminded me of my mother.