The Lesson

by Irving Kronenberg

Molly and Isaac were a pair of gerbils my nine year old son Robert kept as pets in his bedroom. The cage stood upon a small table near the window. Robert took great pleasure in the care of the diminutive couple, watching them alternating on the running wheel and darting around their small cage. When his parents weren't around he took them out of the cage and into his bed letting them run hand over hand, across his shoulders and into the dark recesses of his blankets. He heard us speak about the gerbils mating and having a litter, but how, when, and why this would happen was still a great mystery to Robert about which, at least outwardly, he exhibited little curiosity.

One morning Robert appeared at the breakfast table very pale with tears in his eyes, sobbing, his voice barely audible. "I think something's happened to Molly," he said. "What is it, what happened, why are you crying?" asked his mother. "She's not moving," said Robert, sniffing and sputtering, "she's just laying there, I think maybe she's dead." "Let's go up and take a look," I said quickly and I led the way two stairs at a time to Robert's room as though the speed of our ascent would somehow alter what we found. It took only a moment to confirm Robert's diagnosis. He was obviously shaken by this, his first encounter with death and kept asking, "What do we do now? What about Isaac, is he gonna die too?" We explained that there was no reason to believe that Isaac would die and that while he will be lonely for a while, it might be possible to find him another partner at the pet shop downtown. Molly was buried in the backyard and Robert's loss was lovingly and sympathetically acknowledged.

Only a few days later, on a Saturday morning, Robert and I drove downtown to the Pet Palace. We entered the shop and walked through an aisle of caged puppies, kittens and rabbits on one side and tropical fish, goldfish and painted turtles on the other. Robert was distracted by the assortment of pet choices and stopped to look at everything. After some considerable wait at the counter, I finally had the attention of the pet shops proprietor and with Robert now at my side I described our mission: "We are looking for a six month old female gerbil to mate with the male my son has at home" "That doesn't seem to be too difficult, I think I can fix you right up," said the proprietor as he walked toward the rear of the Pet Palace. He stopped, reached up to a cage, removed a gerbil and held it up for inspection. "Looks good," he said. "How about this one son?" he asked looking at Robert with a wink. "She's just the right age. How about it?" "Ok," said Robert and turning to me he cupped his mouth and whispered, "She looks just like Molly." As we walked to the door of the shop I turned to ask the proprietor how long it would be before they mated. "Oh no more than four to eight weeks," he answered confidently. Robert carried the small paper box out of the shop and we got into the car and headed home.

I think it was at the first red light, as we sat silently waiting for the light to change, Robert looked over at me and said, "Dad, what do they do when they mate?" I was a little uncertain about his question and answered with a question, "What do you mean, what do they do?" "That man said they would mate in four to eight weeks; what does that mean Dad, what do they do when they mate?" The light changed and we were moving again, but I didn't know where I was or what I was doing. I was so ill prepared for his question - I stuttered and phumffered and repeated, "Well, well, well, you see, well," and finally came up with the brilliant response - "Well they do what the birds and bees do" - (where did I hear that before). "They do what the animals do and actually they do what people do." "Yeah, that's what I want to know, what do people do?"

By this time it occurred to me that there was no escape from this classic conflict between a child's relentless curiosity and search for reasonable, satisfying answers and his parent's need to measure and respond with just enough information. Robert was focused on human reproduction and no matter how I wiggled and squirmed in my seat I could not find a way to divert his attention from the track he was on. I rationalized that this was not the time for fairy tales or as my mother would say "bubamienses" old wives tales. After a substantial pause I took a deep breath thinking, "Well here goes," and plunged right into a cursory description of the anatomy and physiology of the female reproductive system. As I described the monthly descent of the ovum and its availability to the male's sperm I pointed out that only when the ovum and sperm "get together" would there be a fetus. We were certainly on new ground for Robert. I could see out of the corner of my eye that he was staring at me, his eyes open wider than I had ever seen them, his mouth agape, virtually spellbound. Allowing some time for a sign that he wanted to know more I was not surprised, given his rapt attention, when he blurted out, "And where does the sperm come from?" I paused for another moment to consider the appropriate response concluding that there was only one honest answer. Robert waited patiently he wasn't giving up and I could feel his stare fixed on me. My loud and heavy sigh was the only audible sound in the car. Finally, I replied, "The sperm comes out of the male's penis." "And where does the male put the sperm?" asked Robert. "In the female's vagina," I said. Robert hesitated for a few seconds formulating his next question but quickly he persisted, motioning with his hand, palm up, fingers pinched together asking, "How does it get there - how does he put it there?" "The male puts his penis in the female's vagina," I explained. Robert, for the first time looked away shaking his head. "You did that? You had the guts to do that?" "Yes Robert, your mother and I did that," I said. Robert looked away again still shaking his head and in a quiet, thoughtful voice said, "I'm not gonna tell anyone." "Why not?" I asked. "No one will believe me," he said with a wave of his hand.

We were close to home and I was feeling drained, exhausted but pleased that I had just shared a poignant, loving and enchanted moment with my son.

He ran from the car into the house looking for his older sister. Only a moment earlier he had vowed not to tell anyone about what he had learned but it was obvious that he could not contain himself.

His sister appeared at the top of the stairs and he began shouting up to her, repeating verbatim everything he learned in the car. Once his sister understood the reason for his excitement she told him with a shrug of her shoulders, playing the role of the big sister, that she knew all about it. He continued, however, jumping up and down, pointing to his mother and me shouting, "But they did it three times!"