"Have Your Breasts Always Looked Like That?"
My mother was a woman of large and voluptuous personality, the kind of person who fills up a room when she walks into it. Her body was large and voluptuous too, which left her an intermittent if never particularly successful dieter. But there was one body part -- two, actually -- in which she seemed to glory: her breasts.
In our family, the story was told of how she battled the maternity ward nurses in Exeter, New Hampshire, where she gave birth in 1953, for the right to breastfeed her daughter. That baby was me.
For all my years of growing up, my mother possessed a prodigiously energetic style of demonstrating her love (the kind that seemed to burst out of her dress and spill onto you), and even after I'd grown up and left home, she didn't let up a whole lot in the mothering department. Being the recipient of all this attention and affection was a mixed blessing, but this much I knew: There was no more comforting place to be than pressed against her bosom. It probably says something about my marriage that, even into my 20s and 30s, this continued to be true.
On Mother's Day of 1989, I got a phone call telling me that my gloriously robust 66-year-old mother was suffering from an inoperable brain tumor. Within the hour I'd hired a babysitter to help my husband take care of our three children -- ages 5, 7, and 11 -- and flew to Toronto to care for her in what turned out to be the last summer of her life.
One afternoon, the two of us were out on her patio, soaking up the sun. I had taken off my shirt, and my mother leaned over from her wheelchair and studied me hard. She said, "Have your breasts always looked like that?"
Well, no, they hadn't. Although, unlike her, I'd always been small-breasted, I had, like her, enthusiastically nursed all of my children -- and I had the droopy chest to prove it.
But there was no time, just then, to grieve over my breasts; I was too busy grieving for my mother. And for my marriage. My husband and I had been going through hard times for months (truthfully, years) before her diagnosis; now, facing the loss of my mother, I wanted desperately to salvage my relationship. I flew home partway through the summer for what was meant to be a romantic weekend with my husband at a little bed-and-breakfast, but the trip didn't go well. Sitting across from me at a restaurant in the picturesque town of Newfane, Vermont, watching as a single tear flowed down my cheek and splashed onto a very good cut of untouched steak, my husband had regarded me, not unkindly, but much as an interviewer would in the moments before easing out a job candidate who was not going to be hired. "I'm sorry, Joyce," he'd said. "I just don't have anything for you."
My mother died that October, around the time I learned that my husband had fallen in love with our babysitter. So my mother was dead and my marriage was over, and I found myself, at 35, entering what I look back on as the darkest, loneliest season of my life.
My mother was nowhere close to being wealthy, but she left me some money and I used it in a number of odd ways to relieve the grief that seemed about to pull me under. I joined the Y and swam laps like a woman training for a channel crossing. I bought a great many CDs. I purchased tinted contact lenses to change my eyes from brown to green, and when the world looked no different, I tried purple ones. In the new house I'd found, I installed a very fancy kind of shower, in which the water squirted out from all directions. None of this did the trick.
I did acquire a boyfriend, however. And sometime that winter, I found myself lying naked beside him as he looked over at my breasts with a faintly troubled expression. "Not that you need it," he said. "But have you ever considered cosmetic surgery?"
From that moment on, I thought of nothing but. At the Y, I studied the breasts of women in the locker room with as much attention as any man has ever given any breast -- analyzing size and shape and the various ways they might sit on a woman's chest, other than how mine did, which now struck me as a metaphor for how I was feeling: deflated (empty, in fact) and heading in a steadily downward direction.