Just in case you didn’t know, Elizabeth Warren crushed Scott Brown in their third debate.
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This April, Margo was diagnosed with another form of breast cancer in her other breast. This time she had her support group in place and they were helping her deal with it. They even set up a pot-luck party the night before her surgery, and gave her plenty of advice on everything from what hospital floor and where the best coffee was. (Answer: 6th floor and nurses’ station coffee.)
So this time she felt calm, much more in control. That doesn’t mean a mastectomy is not truly scary, and so, when I asked her to write about her cancer, here’s what unexpectedly surfaced two days before the surgery.
I woke up this morning thinking that it wasn’t a dream. I really remembered something that really happened, what was it? Fifty years ago? I was 21 and I’m 72, so yeah, 50 years ago, almost exactly. Who was she? I think the downstairs neighbor in a pretty crummy apartment at 4208 Walnut Street in West Philly. It was still summer warm. She and I were talking about something or another, out on the old building’s ratty porch. I can remember that to my young eyes she was very old, almost a stereotypical incarnation of an ancient crone. But I bet she was only about sixty. There we were standing outside, and she must have started telling me about her cancer. I was listening not because I wanted to listen. No, I wanted desperately to leave but she had, like a Black Widow spider, stung me. I was paralyzed. I wasn’t walking away. Suddenly she opened her housedress to show me, to illustrate the story of the breast cancer. It was not just any old lady’s naked body – bad enough probably – sagging breasts, loose, droopy skin, splotches, lots of cellulite. Like me before. It wasn’t a woman’s body at all. She displayed, almost proudly, a washboard front, grayish skin stretched tight and flat over a ribcage that showed, defined from under that skin, revealing a skeleton. To me she looked a horror. She must have been a witch. She did foretell my future. Because that’s how I am going to look after July 6.
That’s how I felt when the memory came to me just before the surgery – scared of how I would look, the fear of a young woman looking at a damaged old lady. But then, the surgery went so easily, I was at the group a week after. They congratulated me on everything. Then I called you, Nicole, and you, the artist, pointed out that the good thing about the surgery is that I am now symmetrical!
“The Broken Column,” 1944, by Frida Kahlo
I remember vividly pushing Kleenex into my bra at 14. I even remember the blouse I wore. It was a wonderful purple. Where is that blouse? More importantly, why is that color not popular anymore, and why are my breasts so close to my waist?
When I was in my sixties I had an adulterous affair with a boy I met at college right before I graduated. We hadn’t spoken for around 40 years when he tracked me through the internet and got my phone number. We flirted easily and arranged a rendezvous for immediately.
This was my first and only betrayal of another woman. He had a lot of practice in that particular area. When he saw me undressed, he was awed. “When did that happen?” He meant my large breasts. I laughed. I laughed to think that men are so breast obsessed that they can remember the size of a pair they saw 40 years ago. And that even though my breasts were not those perky high dancing twins that they were in college, they were large and size matters.
Deanna shares an instance when a man complimented her breasts, too, though from a different angle.
I dabble in online dating on a free website, and I’ve been on all kinds of dates. Some good, some awkward, and only a few that were just plain bad. Only once did a date ever offend me with a compliment, let alone offend me. After a long first-and-last date, I shook the guy’s hand and wished him the best.
When I got home, there was an email waiting for me. He sent me a message asking if all of my body parts were real. That is, my breasts. I had worn a jeans and a grey T-shirt that evening. He went on to say that he meant it as a compliment, and that I should really show them off because they could be a real asset in dating. Further compliments were heaped on me, letting me know that I had a ‘Midwestern grain-fed charm’ that should one day secure me a husband. Oh. Joy.
I blocked him from my profile and have heard no more.
When do compliments of another’s body cross boundaries and become a way to shame? For more on that question, here’s an article from The Atlantic. It includes the tragic story of Amanda Todd’s bullying and death. (http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/10/pointless-shame-the-english-speaking-worlds-issue-with-womens-breasts/263585/)
Nicole Hollander’s “Self Portrait”
In a binder over what costume to wear? For more tricks or treats, visit http://bindersfullofwomen.tumblr.com.
Furthers thoughts from Margo.
For quite a while after my cancer diagnosis Nicole urged me to write about my breasts. I remembered that those body parts came into my awareness when I was finishing grade school and stayed there in different ways for a very long time. Writing down my memories and the feelings turned out to be a brief personal history of the second half of the 20th century.
I turned 12 in the beginning of the fifties, the time of the Janes — Jane Russell and Jayne Mansfield, among other famed mammary models. Every pre-adolescent girl was suddenly faced with breasts – not that I had them, but that was the point. A boy in my class, Mitchell M., also 12, but clearly much more in tune with the reality of puberty than I was, taunted me in the schoolyard. “Margo Law is a Lumber Queen!” I was mortified, first to be singled out, and by a boy at that, but also by my confusion. What did that remark mean? Even though he called me a “queen,” I somehow knew it was no compliment. Hot humiliation flooded over me and I blushed red as the proverbial beet, and probably blushed every time I saw him. Some not-so-kind soul must have clued me in to the definition, because sixty years later I remember the expression, one almost as creative as Cockney rhyming slang: Flat as a board, board, wood, planks, lumber, etc. Therefore, a flat-chested girl was a “Lumber Queen.”
I wonder how anyone else knew what that cute-mean term meant, but they did. The boys did for sure, snickering forever. Boys may develop their sexual characteristics and emotionally later than girls do, but I can testify to the fact that, at least in those pre-feminist days, they developed their meanness early.
So there I was, flat, while most of the other girls in eighth grade were developing womanly breasts of varying sizes. I remember that Renee E., in particular, was really stacked. But she was short. Maybe all her growth was going into her boobs. I, on the other hand, was quite suddenly growing taller. My body must be putting its work into up not out.
The girls with breasts were the ones that even those immature boys followed around – and for them, the bigger the better. The taunting continued and I couldn’t stand it. I finally told my parents who actually complained directly to Mitchell’s parents. That insured that everyone at P.S. 117 knew I was flat-chested and also a crybaby-tattletale.
Around the age of sixteen I grew from a 32 AA to a 34 A, and stayed that size until I was married and got on the pill; then everything changed again because the pill, in those pharma guinea-pig days, mimicked pregnancy. Again, suddenly, no warning, my breasts got larger and hurt every month. Great! Kind of pregnant, for years, but with nothing to show for it. At least that’s what I thought — nothing to show for it. I was in for a surprise way later.
When I was 27, I had an affair with a self-identified expert on breasts. Edward: Intellectual, Polish, Jewish, foreign accent, lithe and good-looking, and really, really into women! Who could resist him? I didn’t. Along with exciting sex, he swore, based on his having seen and enjoyed several hundred women and specifically their breasts, that mine were the most perfect set he had ever seen. In fifteen years I went from being the flat-chested Lumber Queen to Queen of Gorgeous Breasts. I could have bragged about ascension to that throne only for a few years. Age doesn’t treat breasts kindly. Neither does cancer.
My early memories make it more than ironic that recently, now in my seventies, I lost both of my breasts to cancer. Because I’m in a cancer-support group, I get to talk and hear a great deal about breasts. I was surprised to learn from a few women that when they were young they were very big-breasted and hated it. Is that not another irony? I had been so jealous of the girls who had developed early and big, and there they were, at least later in life, jealous of the women who had medium-size breasts. Their problems with big breasts had to do with back aches – I never would have thought; chaffing from bra straps that had to carry so much weight — I never would have imagined; having to wear a bra even in very hot weather – it never entered my mind; and a few other things, like discomfort while running for a bus and wearing certain styles of clothes.
Three women recently talked to me about breast-reduction surgery. The first time was right after my second mastectomy. I was taking it easy in a bookstore and fell into conversation with a woman who, once she learned I was just recovering from the surgery, inquired as to details of the operation. Was it painful after? (No.) Was there subsequent discomfort? (Very little.) She was planning on breast reduction to alleviate her intense back pains. At the time I didn’t get it about the consequence of really large breasts. I think I was dealing with shock at my second cancer.
The other day, though, another friend told me that some years before, she had had breast reduction. She sketched out the surgery: many cuts, all around the breasts, necessary to evenly remove the proper amount of tissue She chose to go through it because she suffered from all the aforementioned discomforts. To me it sounded like a surgery that easily trounces the single-incision, virtually painless mastectomy. Then, the other evening, when I raised the question in my group, one of the woman told of being diagnosed with cancer in one breast. She had a single mastectomy with reconstruction, and, while they were at it, she was thrilled that the surgeon reduced the other, extremely large breast.
Well, of course, even the painlessness of a mastectomy doesn’t make up for the fact of cancer, but it certainly never before occurred to me that big-breasted women do not universally delight in their physical attributes. It’s a good thing that all this on-going discussion of breasts and our feelings around them has led to empathy. A bit late, but still, we delight in sharing all our insights.
LES DEMOISELLES D’AVIGNON, Pablo Picasso, 1916
Just to prove that everyone, not only women, feels for cancer, here’s what Margo wrote about a recent series of events.
Last year at my local university I sat in on a class on the history of Christianity. Next to me was a guy who eventually starting chatting with me before class, curious about what I, with my gray hair and wrinkles, was doing in a class of undergraduates. I told him I was a retired professor and wanted some intellectual stimulation, attending lectures in areas I knew nothing about.
To my surprise he was not a supporter of my desire for life-long learning. He told me he was a strict Christian, a true believer, actually majoring in Religious Studies. He was not happy with what he saw as my dabbling in Christianity. He considered me a dilettante.
Furthermore, he was worried that I, as a Jew, was sure to be skeptical about what I was learning about his religion and its roots, even though, of course, I didn’t dare remind him that those roots are solidly in Judaism. Maybe he hoped I would hear the Good News and give up my hell bent ways.
But what really bugged him, he said, was that I was a “double dipper.” That’s what he called me, a double-dipper. I didn’t quite understand the term. He said there I was, collecting a pension AND social security, stealing from the feds and the state and thereby cutting into his future possibilities of lower tuition and a job with good pay. I didn’t try to argue him out of this position but I was upset that his hostility had more to do with money-troubles than with the word of God.
The other day I ran into him on campus. We exchanged a few words about current classes. Then he asked me what I had taken last semester.
Aha! I said to myself, here’s my chance!
I answered, “I didn’t take any classes because I was diagnosed with breast cancer.”
He fell all over himself. “Are you all right now? You’re in remission, right? Let me get the door for you. Oh! Are you doing okay?”
The late Robert Schimmel, who had the disease, called cancer “the Ultimate Get Out of Jail Free Card.”
I played it. He was so right.
Reclining Nude, Head Resting on Right Arm – by Amedeo Modigliani