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Dorothy Wilhelm: Learning life’s mysteries thanks to the contents of a simple plain envelope

The facts of life came in the mail in a plain envelope. It was brave of my mother to send for the book it contained, “Where Do Babies Come From?” The magazine ad promised it would explain the beginnings of life in a clear, easy-to-understand way that mothers and daughters could share. That kind of sharing was very rare in 1946 when interesting things still came in the mail.

The first page began, “I am an adolescent girl.” Of course a man wrote it. Never mind. I was 12 and desperate for information. Explicit scenes in movies consisted of couples sharing intense, slightly constipated looks, mysteriously followed by pictures of fireworks exploding, even if it wasn’t the Fourth of July.

In short, I didn’t have a clue.

Mom and I read the book together. There was a guest appearance by the birds and bees.

Then it got down to business. The most startling bit of information was the sinus-clearing announcement that how “the male plants the seed (from which a baby develops) is by use of a tube which he carries.”

Well, this was news! I visualized something like a soda straw or a pea shooter made of that new fangled plastic stuff that was beginning to appear in stores, possibly decorated with stars and stripes, or something celebratory.

I imagined that all the truly hep fellows (hep is right. The word didn’t become “hip” for almost a generation.), who were really in the know, would probably have such an object in their rear pocket at all times, just in case. Whenever I saw a male person, I’d maneuver a look at his rear pocket, but I never managed to glimpse the gadget.

When we finished the book, Mom cautioned me not to share this newfound information with any of my friends. Mothers preferred to tell their daughters at just the right time, which was usually never, she explained. Of course, I said. I understood, I said.

What I understood was that nobody was going to beat me in passing on this choice intelligence. I might never have such a scoop again in my life. Sure enough, I never did.

I went right out, gathered up my friends and taught my first seminar in the parking lot of the Grace Baptist Church. I only charged my audience 10 cents and half a banana Popsicle apiece. It was a bargain. I’m pretty sure that if I could have got hold of those soda straw things I could have charged 50 cents.

It is difficult now to imagine the climate of those days after the war. We had spent years collecting newspapers, doing without shoes and meat, rolling gum wrappers into balls of tin foil. and being assured, by authorities as credible as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck of our ability to act wisely in all situations and of our superiority over people who were different than we were.

There was someone else in my life in those days who bravely shared a truth that I would carry all my life. That was my Sunday school teacher. Mr. Randall loved America and he loved us. It bothered him to see old prejudices reappearing in our lives.

One Sunday, he brought a black envelope and a white envelope to class and held them up for us to see. What were they? Envelopes, we agreed. Next, he brought out a silver dollar. We were electrified. Children of what would today be called the working poor, we could have done a lot with that dollar. He slipped the silver into the white envelope. What is it now? A silver dollar in a white envelope! Can you spend it? Do you want it? Yes!

Next, he slipped the dollar into the black envelope. Has the value changed? Can you spend it? Do you want it? Yes! Oh, yes!

“For the rest of your life, when you meet someone or judge someone” he said, “Never look at the color of their envelope. Look at what’s inside.”

Then he gave me the envelope with the dollar. I was always teacher’s pet. But somehow I understood that this one wasn’t mine to keep, but to pass on and I’m passing it on to you today.

Sometimes, the most important facts of life can come in a plain envelope.

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