Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Lessons in Anatomy

Picasso Bullfighters

You have to wonder sometimes if we’re really in the twenty first century. We may have devices in our palms that can instantly connect and inform us, but judging from our political discourse, particularly in the realm of women’s health, we have become so prudish, obtuse, and uninformed, it may well be the sixteenth century when women donned chastity belts and men decided their fate. My mother was a midwife who had seen her share of happy and tragic childbirth, and she urged an open dialogue about sex that today would be labeled as “TMI”. In this era of contentious debate over our reproductive rights, I’m reminded of a rainy afternoon she spent giving me, what you may call, too much information.

I came home from school to find my mother waiting for me on the couch. The coffee table was set with cups and saucers, a teapot, and a plate of currant cake. If I were six, I would have thought we were having a tea party like we used to, when she sat in a circle with my dolls and teddy bears waiting for me to hand her a dollsize cup. At eleven, this request to come to the living room seemed too formal and I worried she had received a call from school forcing her to leave work early.

 My mother sat on the edge of the couch in her cream colored wool skirt and a silk blouse with a pattern of pink buds on a green vine. She couldn’t be prettier, my mother, with her slim ankles and sheer hose, a notebook open to a blank page on her lap. Without fidgeting, she dove right in. “Now darling, I want to explain to you how human beings reproduce. You may have some ideas, you may have heard things from your sisters, but I’d like to tell you the facts.” Well, she needn’t have worried, because my sisters were as forthcoming about the secrets of the human reproductive system as the Shah’s intelligence ministry, speaking in code and stopping mid-sentence if I wandered into their rooms. My mother was a nurse and a midwife schooled in England. “Right, you see this?” She took a pencil to draw a diagram, stretching her vowels as her pencil curved around the uterus. “These here you see, are the fallopian tubes – a bit like a bull’s head, hmm? And these here are the ovaries.” I sat close to her, my eyes glued to the drawing. Bull’s head? She erased the right ovary to match the left one. “See these sacs? They hold all your eggs. And it all starts here. When you get your period…” Period, I had heard of it in the bathroom from some of my advanced classmates, but until that afternoon, I had no idea what nature had in store for me. I didn’t know I carried so many eggs around (my entire allocation) in those tiny pouches. “You, me, your teachers, the kittens next door, everything came out of an egg.” Hunh.

My mother poured tea and stirred milk and a teaspoon of sugar in each cup. Then she sliced two pieces of cake, one larger than the other, knowing how I loved that yellow cake studded with currants. I had come in from a cold rain to this room with a lush Persian rug of reds, rose, and turquoise vines, where a radiator sputtered, and my mother waited to share a remarkable secret. For the next hour or so she filled blank sheets with impressive drawings of male organs, female genitalia, and what happens when they meet. Hard to believe, really, that I had made it to eleven not knowing this secret. Suddenly all those games of Doctor I’d played with my cousins seemed suspect. Had they known? Was I the simple one in our gang? Or were we all innocent when we played House or Teacher?

That my mother was extraordinary was not clear to me then. Iran in 1973, six years before the revolution, may have boasted modernity, but the subject of sex was barred, mired in ancient taboos. In a country where sex and shame are synonyms, where a woman carries the weight of her virginity like an iron curtain, there is little chance for a girl to know anything about her sexuality except for its implications of submission, surrender, and shame. The saying goes: “Better to bear a snake than a daughter.” Girls are corralled and cloaked in the guise of protecting the family honor. My mother did not want her daughters to grow up under a veil, refusing to surrender to a skewed natural order dictated by men to suppress women, turning the curse of being a woman into a blessing, opening my eyes before I could fall prey to ignorance, so I could stride through life unencumbered. With a unique approach to sex education, she intercepted the cultural taboos inflicted on women. My mother made her own rules, abiding by a personal code of conduct. On her nightstand was a worn copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. For years I had stared at the cover, leafed through its pages, disappointed to find no pictures. The summer I turned fifteen, she suggested I read it while on holiday. What, until then, I thought was some sort of sex manual, turned out to be a handbook on how a woman can become a sovereign self in a patriarchal society.

 “Come,” she said “I’ll show you the cabinet where we keep the Kotex. You should know how to use them in case I’m at work when you get it.” We returned to the sofa for another slice of cake. She chuckled to herself before reminding me of an earlier anatomy lesson. There had been a long stretch in kindergarten when I refused to wear pants, convinced that if I did, I would turn into a boy. I attended a coed international school with teachers and students from all over the world. Every day I insisted on wearing a white cotton summer dress my mother had sewn for me with a pineapple pattern. By late autumn, my mother had had enough. One afternoon, she staged a viewing while I was busy lining up dolls for a round of my favorite game, “Mrs. Harkins” (my kindergarten teacher’s name). I enjoyed playing the role of the teacher immensely, tapping my dolls with a ruler, asking them to copy what I drew on a chalkboard easel, scolding them for slouching or coming to school with unruly hair. Knowing I’d become so absorbed in role-playing that I would forget to pee, my mother said she poked her head in to remind me to go to the bathroom. Indeed I stood agitated with my legs twisted, all the while yelling at my dolls to keep quiet. Turning to leave, I warned, “Mrs. Harkins has to pee! Stay still!” When I opened the door to the bathroom I shared with my parents I saw my father in the shower with the curtain open. “Hello there!” he waved cheerfully as if we had just run into each other at the park. But for the frothy soapsuds that sat on his chest, he stood naked in the steam rising from the scalding water in the tub. Stunned, I forgot I had to pee. “What’s that?” I cried. My father was a doctor and completely casual about his private parts. Like lifting the hood of a car to show his daughter the engine and the battery, he continued to explain how all boys had a penis and two testicles, some bigger, some smaller, how you should never kick or punch a boy there unless he’s bothering you, and never allow one to touch you, elaborating on mammals, hair, breasts, egg sacs, you name it. I’m not sure how long I stayed listening to my father’s lecture, but Mrs. Harkins left the bathroom somewhat bewildered. The pineapple dress was washed, ironed, and folded into a bag of hand-me-downs, and my mother celebrated by buying me a pair of itchy wool pants.

The subject of sex did not come up again until the fall of seventh grade. Our new science teacher, Mr. Prewitt, had driven his motorcycle through Turkey to Iran. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and dark brown corduroy pants with suede ankle boots and walked the length of our classroom in long, measured strides, stopping to push back long hair behind his ears to make a point. I adored him. So forthcoming was he with his knowledge that he made our other teachers look stingy, sticking to their carefully composed curriculums. In Mr. Prewitt’s class the bell always seemed to ring just minutes after we’d begun, and each day I left wondering what he had in store for tomorrow. In November, he announced that we would finish the semester learning about the human reproductive system, reminding us to bring fresh notebooks and be prepared to do some drawings while ignoring our stifled gasps and snickers. Having had an extensive introduction to the subject over tea and cake, I felt confident. Little did I know of the turmoil brewing behind the scenes in the principal’s office. Not having sanctioned preemptive sex education, parents were in an uproar. The principal had asked my mother to intervene knowing she was well liked, respected, and as a nurse, could persuade the parents that their kids would only benefit from knowing the facts. What followed was more tea and cake – only this time she hosted forty anxious parents, and her diplomacy paid off. How comforting it was over the next few weeks to sit in Mr. Prewitt’s class, to follow the path of his yellow chalk as he drew the now familiar shapes, and copy them in my brand new spiral notebook. I owe that A+ to my mother.

This fall with the election looming and the on-going archaic discussion over contraception, abortion, and Planned Parenthood, I am reminded again of my mother’s eloquent anatomy lesson and her insistence on a sovereign self. I daresay that midwives are better equipped than politicians to insist on a woman’s right to make decisions about her body, but I can’t help wonder which candidate would speak to his children with ease and candor about these issues and ensure the rights of our daughters and grand daughters. The fact is my parents taught me about sex the same way they taught me how to swim, drive, fold laundry, sew a button, and boil an egg. It was sensible, matter-of-fact, and always with a touch of humor. And thanks to Mr. Prewitt, who traveled across the world to another continent to teach a bunch of awkward, pubescent seventh graders about sex, a few of us managed to grow up informed and unencumbered by ancient dogma. Their pragmatism is sorely missed.