so what have you been writing about lately?" my mother asked me. We were flying to London on what must have been the most crowded flight in United Airlines history. Luggage poked out from every seat, babies screamed, flight attendants stepped over the sprawled legs of passengers. My mother was adjusting the ear piece of her headset, trying the volume and channels, when she had turned to me quizzically.
"Well," I stalled, and thought for a moment. I'd just written about penis size, the mystery of masturbation and vibrators, though not necessarily in that order. My mother wasn't on the Internet, never read Unzipped, and I liked it that way. Occasionally she'd make noises about getting a computer, or would ask half-heartedly if I couldn't just print a few things out for her. But somehow these things never came to pass.
My mother is no prude. We began talking about sex long ago, spurred in part, I think, by our mutual desire not to imitate the Irish Catholic, repressed relationship she had with her mother. She accommodated my pre-adolescent questions with a great show of openness, talking to me about menstruation, breast size and intercourse in a matter-of-fact tone as she put on her make-up or brushed her hair. She herself had been divorced for many years now, and growing up I'd seen a few boyfriends come and go, tiptoeing out of the house in the pre-dawn hours, looking pale and guilty in their black dress socks and rumpled, untucked shirts.
If anything, it was me that was the prude when it came to sex talk with my mother. Yes, we were honest, but we were not blunt. Skirting around the periphery was fine with me -- yes, she knew I slept with men and a good number of them by the time I was 30, but she did not need to know more than that. Details were not asked for, nor were they provided. I wasn't even certain if she knew exactly what Unzipped was about, although I had overheard her once at a cocktail party say something about her daughter, "who wrote some kind of urban life sex thing."
"Well?" she asked, frowning when the titles of "The Mirror Has Two Faces" flashed on the credit card-sized movie screen.
"I've been writing about the importance of penis size, Mom," I said. Honest but not blunt. But I felt myself squirm in my seat and go a little hot in the face. "Or, non-importance, as the case may be. So, do you think Lauren Bacall deserves an Oscar this year?"
"Penis size IS important," my mother said. She was still fiddling around with her dials. "Don't you think it is? Any woman that says that it isn't is lying," she continued, and not particularly quietly either.
"Mom, could you keep your voice down?"
"Why? Does it embarrass you?"
"Ssshh. For God's sake, at least take off your headphones," I hissed. "No, of course it doesn't. You and I can talk about anything. How is tax time going to be for you this year, by the way?"
"In fact, I think penis size is VERY important. I think it directly affects the way a man treats a woman, how big or small he is. You and I have never talked about this, have we?"
"No," I said, shifting around. A man burping a baby glared at me. "Maybe there's a good reason for that."
"Men my age are completely hung up on their penises," she said, taking a careful sip of her Diet Coke. "Then again, so are the women!" She giggled suddenly, and said, "Have I ever told you about going to that nude beach with your father ..."
"OK, Mom, that's it." I sat up. "This discussion is over. I refuse to hear that 'p' word and my father in the same sentence." I plugged my headphones in, determined to catch up on "The Mirror Has Two Faces." From what I could tell, Lauren Bacall and Barbra Streisand seemed to be having the same type of conversation we were.
"Well!" my mother said. She pretended to be a little huffy but I could see she was highly amused. "When did you become such a nervous Nellie? I was only going to say in the '70s, we used to always go to the nude beaches and look at all the different sizes. There really is an amazing range." She opened a magazine and began flipping through it.
A week later, we were sitting with a group of 10 of my friends at the Avenue, a bustling, modern restaurant in central London. After the first five bottles of wine, my English friends were delighted with my mother; by the 10th she was officially declared "one of the mates." She was open, she was honest, she was witty. They all wished they had mothers like Peggy.
In the middle of my Caesar's salad I leaned across the table to my friend Mark, who was sitting to her left. "Here, Mark," I said holding out an anchovy fillet. "Do you like anchovies?"
"Good Lord no!" he exclaimed. "Get that away from me. I had a bad oral sex experience once, you see," he explained to my mother. "The woman was positively like a salt trough. I haven't been able to eat anchovies since. Disgusting." He began talking loudly across the table about the upcoming elections.
I looked at Mom. She was crimson from neck to hairline. I patted her hand and said, "Don't worry. It'll never come up again."