Our tender young minds were protected from sex and religion

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In our house, the stacks of Playboys were hidden in a secret room in the basement. Right next to the family Bible. That’s where they kept all the stuff that might scar tender young minds, like the collected works of Hugh Hefner and King James. That said, that room was the worst kept secret on our street. I was a frequent docent for joyful, naughty tours through my dad’s spicy library stacks.

My dad was crafty in constructing the “secret” room. He paneled the entire cavernous basement in horrendous ‘60s era knotty pine (which, in retrospect, is much more horrifying than the room’s contents), and aligned the doorway with the cracks between the panels. The hinges were hidden, and the door had no handle. You had to know just where to push on it to make it spring open.

Way cool, huh?

(And by the way, for those who are worried — or hoping — that this column will evolve into lurid tales of a BDSM dungeon or inspiration for “that” scene in “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” relax. The door couldn’t lock from the inside.)

Funny, my parents never questioned why us kids spent so much time in the basement. They must’ve thought we really loved playing on the old pool table, although no cracking of balls or yelps of “rack ‘em” ever emanated from downstairs. But it was the ‘60s, before the onslaught of helicopter parents, and back then, if the kids weren’t bothering the adults and no one turned up bleeding, that was good enough for them.

Sometimes, I sneaked into the secret room all by myself, and sat down with the raciest, most magical material of all: a big, fat, white leatherette King James Bible, in such pristine condition that I must have been the first to open it. The contents of its gold-edged pages were mesmerizing — all those flowery thees and thous, tales of talking snakes and burning bushes, raining frogs and multi-headed beasts, and the Great Whore (was that Miss November???). Only Dr. Seuss had a better imagination. And by the way, it didn’t escape my young mind that whether the Bible or Playboy, everyone seemed happiest when running around naked.

I thought I was really getting away with something down in that secret room, whether alone or leading a tour, but in retrospect, I think my parents were wise to it. They probably figured we’d peruse the downstairs reading material and ask questions when we were ready.

Questions about sex were no problem in our house. My parents were both doctors, and they answered sex questions as doctors would: boring, ho-hum facts. Sex was just one more bodily function and a normal, natural part of life, and all in all, a good thing, but really, not that big of a damn deal. Religion, on the other hand — big damn deal. Bring up religion and my parents would ice over.

No surprise, then, that my sister and I were raised completely and totally agnostic: no prayer before meals, no dead and dying saviors hanging from crosses on the wall, no church on Sunday, zip, zilch, nada. They didn’t bar us from exploring religion, but didn’t encourage it either. We were free to explore the various religious paths, or no path at all, and make up our own minds. And it wasn’t because my parents didn’t have any experience with religion. Quite the contrary. My dad was Catholic and my mother Jehovah’s Witness, and as far as their respective families were concerned, completely incompatible.

The story of their engagement announcement, as told to me, was that upon hearing that his daughter intended to marry a Catholic, my grandfather sprung to his feet not to embrace her, but to strangle her, telling her she’d be better off dead than married to a Catholic. Thankfully, she wrestled free, ran out of the house, and before you know it, my someday parents were on their way to Reno to elope. Following that unhappy start, my parents not only walked away from their respective religions, they soon moved 500 miles away from their families, clearly needing a buffer zone. Must’ve been those stressful early family gatherings and holidays that finally did it, which shouldn’t have been a major issue, as Jehovah’s Witnesses forgo all the good ones anyway.

How stressful were those early days for the mismatched newlyweds? I’m guessing pretty prickly, because as I reflect on it now, I can’t recall a single instance where both sets of grandparents, or aunts and uncles or cousins, were in attendance. It was either one side of the family or the other, but never all together. The one exception was when I got married the first time. The anti-Catholic sentiment ran so deep in my mother’s family that they stood outside during the ceremony because they refused to step foot inside a Catholic Church. They did attend the reception, but even then, never stood close enough to anyone from my father’s side of the family for a photograph to be snapped of everyone together.

In the context of my parents’ soured religious backgrounds, they were wise to raise their children religion-free. Yes, they got that right, which is quite amazing really, because when it came to child-rearing, my parents got most everything wrong, and I don’t mean a little wrong, I mean completely, totally, gloriously wrong — a vein of column material I couldn’t exhaust if I mined it every day for the rest of my life. But as for sex and religion, they nailed it: Question about sex? No problem, just ask, no harm, no foul, and a straight answer will be given.

— Email Debra at debra@wintersexpress.com; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com, www.edebra.com and www.ipinion.com

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