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This Is Not to Scale

“You’re growing up,” my dad said, as he slid an innocuous tape into the VCR and adjusted the setting on the television.

He was right. I was almost nine. But in that moment, I didn’t care about my age. I cared that my younger brother and sister had to go to bed, but I got to stay up and hang out with Dad. We played cards for a little while, using pennies from the big jar on his dresser to toss in the pot. I don’t think it was Poker, though it was something like it.

He drank a scotch on the rocks; I drank a pop, probably a Sprite or a Faygo Red, my favorite. We crunched on snack foods, dipping chips into ranch dip and shelling peanuts. Since my mom had left a few months prior, I hadn’t had much time alone with my dad. If I wasn’t in school, I was home with a babysitter, and if Dad was home from work, my siblings were always around, too. When dinner was over and the dishes drying in the dish rack, it was already time for pajamas, to watch just one show, then head off to bed, where I would lie awake for hours listening to the washing machine agitate and Dad play Barry Manilow songs on his reel-to-reel.

Never did I ever get a chance to stay awake and play games. Not ever.

“Are we watching a movie?” I asked, pulling the afghan tighter around me, squishing my toes between the separations in the stitches. “Can I pick?”

We were, and no, I could not. This wasn’t just a game night for my dad. This was a night for him to sit me in front of The Miracle of Life and proceed to add commentary on top of the already mundane narration as to where, exactly, babies come from.

I didn’t know enough to think that I should be embarrassed listening to my dad point out the ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, vagina on the screen in front of us. It was like watching a movie in science class, except I got to watch this one with Dad. I observed in fascination as the egg—just the size of a grain of sand!—rolled through the fallopian tube, much like the Atari game, Marble Madness, but the marble had to negotiate muscle and tissue, not a tilting platform.

“Is it moving really slow?” I asked, as the sperm traveled through the urethra, taking us along for the ride. “It’s taking a really long time.” I was confident in my astute observation skills.

That was the only time I saw my dad’s expression change during the entire film. “That’s not to scale,” he said. “It doesn’t take that long.” He smirked a little at my penis-size insinuation, but unable to share the joke with me. I was old enough to travel through the penis, but not quite old enough to understand why penises, in so many ways, are funny.

Dad ended the movie before the birth scene at the end. Instead, he briefly explained menstruation, tossed an economy package of generic pads my way and said, “You don’t need to tell me when it happens.”

Although I understood the science behind it, the film failed to clarify its scale in other details, as well. The Miracle of Life is the reason I thought sperm were each a few inches long and wiry like fishing line. I also didn’t quite understand how the sperm from the man got inside the woman, and my dad was a little vague on those details, too. Although I had the pads, I didn’t know how to use them, and it was a few years before I had to. By that time, I had read many Judy Blume books on the topic and had many myth-busting and myth-creating conversations with my friends about how it all worked.

It was over those talks illuminated by flashlights during sleepovers or sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk with roller skates still strapped to our feet that I learned most of my friends’ parents did not explain these things to them, and certainly not in the depth that I had understood it; none of them knew what a fallopian tube is. Of the few of my friends whose parents did give them the talk, none of them had the conversation with their dads.

The social stigma against talking about reproduction kicked in when I was an early teenager, and by then, I couldn’t talk to any adult about those things, especially not my dad. I was endlessly curious, but my questions were only answered through the trial and error of experience. As I grew older and sex more taboo a topic, I realized how difficult it must have been for my dad—a single father—to be raising a pre-pubescent daughter as his oldest child. Rather than ignoring it, and ignoring me, he confronted the subject matter and laid it out for me the best he could and in the best way that I could understand. Looking back now, I’m thankful that he tried, and that knowledge and appreciation is worth more than what I learned through books and sleepovers.

Melissa Grunow’s writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, New Plains Review, Blue Lyra Review, Temenos, and Yemassee, among many others. She is also a live storyteller, featured in the Moth StorySLAM, as well as other Detroit-area events. Melissa has an MFA in creative nonfiction from National University and is a full-time English faculty at a small arts college in Michigan. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter at @mel_the_writer.

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