I have a photograph of my mother taken just after Catholic Mass on Easter Sunday, 1963. She is surrounded by her many children, her head draped in a long black lace mantilla worthy of the papal countess. (The papal countess at that time was Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, another Irish Catholic woman who produced children with notable volume and urgency—nine of them in 18 years.) According to the dictates of Vatican I, no woman was allowed to enter a Catholic church without a proper head covering. The veil was evidence not only that the woman was respectful of her church but that she was also modest and chaste.
This has always been the weird paradox of the Roman Catholic Church: Sex is evil, shameful, and unspeakable, but by all means do go ahead and have as many children as you possibly can. (My mother's grandmother, a devout Catholic, had 13 children in a yet again mind-bogglingly short period of time.) But the thing about producing so many children so quickly is that everybody knows exactly how you've been spending your spare time. I have a friend who says that when he sees a pregnant woman all he can think of is the sex that led to it. The pregnancy is always somehow sacred but the act that led to it somehow isn't. This, of course, is why the Blessed Virgin had to be a virgin. If she was the mother of God in any ordinary way, then some guy had to have climbed into bed with her. Perish the thought.
With three older sisters and three older brothers, one comes to know about sex one way or another. By the time I was 12, I had learned the basics in bemusing bits and pieces. My case could, I suppose, have been worse. I could have suffered the Catholic mother a friend of mine got. When my friend went to her mother at age 13 and announced in bafflement that there was blood in her underpants, the mother wound up and slapped her full force across the face.