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Harry Welty’s Mother, Georganne Robb Welty, with a kangaroo because, well, why not?
The headline is a bit of an overstatement. My mother prepared me for manhood when I came crying to her by telling me that her Father didn’t cry when he was shot. But that bit of machismo was more than offset by what she told me through the seven years she waited to give birth to a daughter and the following seven waiting for the real daughter to be old enough to learn women’s lore.
I just happened to be a boy.
I was only in fifth grade when she told me about homosexuals and her best friend who married one. At about the same time she told me she refused the drugs to make her sleep through childbirth because she intended to experience birth rather than be knocked out for the convenience of doctors.
When I hit puberty she was eager that I knew what it portended. I was not interested in having a conversation about this with my parents.
I lied and told them that sex ed had explained everything. Nonetheless, I was open to interesting information.
The tap opened wide for me in seventh grade after our move to Minnesota. Georganne Robb Welty began making every-other-month treks to see her father, George Robb. He was newly retired, newly widowed and newly moved into Topeka’s Presbyterian Manner, where he was denied salt.
Mom and her older sister Mary Jane, who also lived a day’s drive from Topeka, Kansas, took turns traveling to see him each month. Six months a year my Mother would prepare and freeze five meals for her week away. It was my responsibility to thaw and heat the meals in her absence.
While she was in Topeka with her Father, they would talk about her favorite subject – family. When she returned she would debrief and tell me much of what she learned, for instance that her never married Aunt Susie had suffered from “female problems.” She required a hysterectomy and Susie was very grateful for it.
Mom told me of a uncle who impregnated a retarded girl. She once asked her father if he’d ever seen his Father hit his Mother. George Robb turned white and in a fury told his daughter never to ask him that question again.
All this was very much in keeping with recent “me too” news stories and the grapevine women have shared for generations about who can and can’t be trusted.
Mom had to fend off a man at her first job. She told me how the man I was named after, Harry Jr., confessed to my grandmother that he had been infected with a venereal disease. My Mother’s take was that Harry loved Ruth Welty so intensely that he preferred the shame of his infidelity to the guilt of leaving his wife ignorant and unprotected.
I’ve never thought of this as gossip. My Mom didn’t have a spiteful bone in her body. She was simply fascinated by people and their stories. She shared her curiosity with me.
Some less reliable things she told me came from literature. She told me that well-to-do-men of the Middle Ages introduced their sons to older women for the purpose of sexual instruction. Well, maybe.
She told me how the Quakers began teaching sex education after discovering that a preacher had violated an innocent. I later learned this was the plot of a popular novel, although today’s news makes clear that this is an unremarkable story.
Why did Mom tell me about the knowing women of the Middle Ages? I wonder?
Dad was a sailor and told me a few of his experiences but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was less intuitive than my Mother might have preferred him to be after their nuptials.
Ignorance had the upper hand in the more puritanical 1940s.
I asked her where she learned about boy’s anatomy. Her answer? Cherubim statues peeing into fountains.
For boys like me the National Geographic or girlie mags stashed in untended garages offered clues to the fairer sex.
One of my favorite SNL skits in the wide open 1970s had pajama-clad Jane Curtain, Lorraine Newman and Gilda Radner giggling about how babies are born. One whispers the secret to another who screams in horror, “My parents did that twice?”
Mom also shared her judgments. When she told her Dad about Earl B., one of my Dad’s fraternity brothers and his sexually-active girlfriend, Grandfather disapproved.
He told her the advice given to him by his worldly friend and fellow 2nd Lt., who did not survive the war. Lt. Seible recommended affairs with married women because “it wouldn’t be a problem” if they got pregnant. My mother hit the roof and told her father that such an affair could wreck a marriage and a family.
My Dad was a student of the laymen’s magazine Psychology Today and a great believer in Freudian dream interpretation. He once traumatized me with a gothically sexual interpretation of a dream I described to him.
I was never my Mother’s daughter but I appreciated her insights right up to my escapades with an unmarried women 10-plus years my senior.
Welty also shoots his mouth off at lincolndemocrat.com