Betty Duffy

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sex and Death (again)

I write about sex a lot. An old boyfriend once noted the centrality of sex as a non-sensual monument in nearly everything I wrote. Thought I was frustrated, or obsessed, or had unrealistic ideas of were sex should fall in a hierarchy of life experience.

And since I can’t write about this without wondering what my parents would think if they read it, it feels right to put the blame for my preoccupation on them. It’s their fault—raising me as they did, with such knowledge of sex and its relationship to nearly everything important in life.

I took my children to my parents’ house today. My parents live on a small farm. They have forty acres, a log cabin, two Haflinger horses, three Belted Galloway cows, chickens, bees, and lots of dogs. The first thing you see when you pull up their driveway is an unneutered dog that looks like he needs to wear underpants. And sure enough an old bitch with teats nearly to the ground slowly makes her way out to greet the car and a couple of her puppies that have arrived with us.

I’ve mentioned that my children helped to take care of these pups, and that they witnessed also the untimely death of one of them. And so death seems to go hand and hand with all of this new life.

Not long ago, my parents tried, unsuccessfully, to artificially inseminate their cows. When the vials that arrived, packed on dry ice in brown boxes, did not “take,” a bull came to visit. What a wonderful time he had, that bull, with each of his special girls, Trixie, Tulip, and T--? Until one day he dropped dead of a twisted gut in the middle of the muddy field. A large truck came to chain him up and hoist him away.

Think any of this goes unnoticed by my children?

It’s everywhere: sex and death, death and sex. One day the rooster is mounting a hen, the next day the rooster is in the dutch oven.

But even before all of these animals, were my parents, and their affection for one another. My husband and I still laugh over the night my mom, trying to get us to open up about our impending marriage, sat on my dad’s lap and said, “There’s a difference between being in a relationship and being IN relationship. I don’t think anyone would doubt that your father and I are IN relationship.”

No mom, unfortunately, we cannot doubt it. And that living, breathing relationship somehow animates our entire family. My siblings and I, our spouses, and our children now number in the upper twenties. But numbers aside, there is a fecundity to nearly every aspect of my parents’ life.

Walking in the woods today my mom says, “Let’s go up this hill. The other day when Dad and I were walking up here we saw some remarkable fungi.” And sure enough in the rotted leaves are dozens of mushrooms. The sun breaks through the wooded canopy and mushroom caps in nearly every color light up the forest floor. The kids point them out: “There’s a red one! That one’s yellow! This one is pure white. I think I’ll name it the Baptism mushroom.” Yes, my good, pious children name mushrooms after Sacraments.

Then, in nearly the same breath, “Look, here’s some poop!” Everyone scurries over to see the little brown snowballs of coyote poop. Last winter, my dad and I found a coyote pup frozen solid on this hill. And now a ring of mushrooms grow in the rot where members of the pup’s family still hunt for food.

Decomposition, death, refuse, and redemption all happen on this hill, and in the pasture, and in the puppy whelping box, and in the chicken coop, and in the house where we soon retreat to drink some tea.

I do not shelter the children from any of it. I have wondered at times if my children even take these things too lightly, when they say, for instance, “When I die, will you get a new me?” because they see how our affection for animals can be replaced by, say, the next largest puppy in the litter. ("You, Child, are irreplaceable.") I would rather them take death lightly than know nothing of it. And I’d rather them see that sex is necessary, and plentiful and procreative—with all this animal mating going on around them, not to mention the increase of our own family—than to live a sterile small life, perhaps with a sterilized pet, in a tidy little house with bleached counters and floors.


Ellyn said...

That was very profound.

I wonder if a certain amount of the Bob Barker "Make Sure Your Pets are Spayed or Neutered" mentality has seeped in to the collective conscience in some not so benign ways. Not to say that the 'burbs need dogs and cats reproducing all over the place - heaven forbid - but there is the 'sterile life' zeitgeist. (Not in my house, of course. You wouldn't want to eat off the floors. Or the counters... :) )

TS said...

Good post but next time I vote more sex, less death. Re: "An old boyfriend once noted the centrality of sex as a non-sensual monument in nearly everything I wrote." Isn't that true for every writer? :-)

Emily J. said...

This post reminds me of the irony in the billboards posted side by side in town: one for neutering your dog: "If you could have 18 children in a month, wouldn't you want to do something about it?" and one for abstinence: "True love waits."

It also reminds me of how you, untempted by Saturday a.m. cartoons, used to knock on Mom and Dad's door on Saturday mornings and say "I know what you're doing in there!" Maybe they were just trying to sleep in?

Emily J. said...

Hmm, now that I read that comment again, I wonder if that neutering billboard must be for cats or rabbits because dogs can't have 18 puppies in a month. Then again, it crossed my mind that the SPCA originally crafted a sign that said "If you could have 18 children, wouldn't you..." and then decided they might offend the Duggars, et al, so they added the "in a month" part.

Kris Livovich said...

Can't remember how I found your blog, but this post inspired me to comment. I think it is fantastic. We have the same idea around here - in terms of not sheltering our children from death (or I suppose, sex). And yet our children are thought of as too sheltered by some because they do not follow the latest trends on TV, they do not listen to the latest music, they don't dress in the latest fashion. Call me crazy, but I would much rather they know about Death than about the newest reality TV show!

Anyway, beautiful post. Thank you.

Jus said...


Betty Duffy said...

Kris, you bring up a good point. My kids too, are sheltered from so much, but primarily so that I can put their ideas about these issues into the right context. There's plenty of sex on the billboards we pass on the highway, in the commercials, and in conversations around the hallways at school, but it's disembodied and out of context, so we've come to accept it in all its banality. Yet real sex, with procreative ends--is somehow explicit and dirty. I do think the 'sterile life zeitgeist' (excellent term for it, Ellyn) contributes to the problem. THere's sort of a parochialism about contraceptive sex--keep things tidy and controlled--and with death also.

All that said, I'm a fan of neutering male dogs--not because it's a moral imperative--but because I've seen them mount children, and it makes me want to cut their nuts off myself.

I could add more sex for you, TS, but that last note seems like a good place to end.