Courage Made Flesh

Last week in The Guardian I read a fascinating article about artist Laura Dodsworth‘s show featuring photographs of 100 women’s breasts. In an attempt to humanize the breasts, to turn them from objects into subjects, “Dodsworth interviewed each woman at length, starting by asking them how they felt about their breasts. The interviews soon became more emotional than she anticipated. “I found that, while breasts are interesting in themselves, they are also catalysts for discussing relationships, body image and ageing. I realised that this had become an exploration of what it means to be a woman.” She is fundraising, via Kickstarter, to make a book of the project.”

There was one woman’s story, in particular, that moved me and filled me with awe. Since words cannot convey the depths of my respect for her, I have reprinted her story below:

Age: 101. Children: one

‘I would never have gone topless, even in my younger days’

breasts: 101-year-old 

“My daughter was born a week before Hitler marched in, and my milk went. It was the shock. We were Jewish. I intended to breastfeed her, but in the end she grew very well without it.

My husband was taken on Kristallnacht. He had gone out, against my advice. The authorities wanted me out of my flat. I went to the SS headquarters and told them in no uncertain terms what I thought of them: “I’m not going to leave my flat and you can kiss my arse!” Maybe it was foolish, but attack is the best defence. My husband was in Dachau and somehow I had to get him out. My husband’s boss was an ex-Nazi, but he was a very nice man, and fond of us. I asked him what to do, and he said, “Go to the Gestapo.” I thought that was a good idea. My parents said I couldn’t, but I said, “I’m not afraid of the Devil! If it helps, I will do it.” I rang up and made an appointment.

I saw a middle-aged man and we got talking. After half an hour, he had to go, but he said, “I promise I will get your husband out, in three weeks, but I want something from you.” I thought I knew what he wanted, but I said, “Oh, what can I do for you?” “I want you to visit me twice a week. I love talking to you.” I was quite prepared for anything. What’s my little thing, if it means getting him out? It’s unimportant. But the man really did only want to talk. And after three weeks, to the day, my husband came home.

We came to England as refugees with no money, so we had to start from the bottom, with a one-year-old child. I began as a secretary and worked in the rag trade in a showroom in the West End.

When I was 52, I had a lump in my breast. I’d had a hysterectomy four years earlier, but there was nothing there; it was benign. This time I thought it would be cancer. In those days, they did not take a biopsy: if there was a lump, the whole breast was removed – that was standard. It was benign and I didn’t need the radio treatment I’d been about to start.

I said to my husband, “Do you mind having a wife with only one breast?” He said, “Would you mind if I lost a leg?” I said, “Of course not!” “So there you go.” We talked about everything, and that is why we had 52 happy years.

My breasts were erogenous. My husband and I had a very good sexual relationship, as well as the friendship. Nothing changed after the mastectomy – our sex life didn’t change until my husband had an operation for his prostate. I consider I was blessed: 52 years, how many people are blessed with that? Not many.

I fell over last week – that’s why I have a bruise. It hurts. But it’ll go. The last time I fell over was more than a year ago. I don’t use a stick yet.

When my nipple suddenly became inverted about 10 years ago, I went to the clinic to have it examined. I know it is a sign of cancer, but it can also be a sign of old age. It doesn’t bother me.

I was conscious of the mastectomy and wouldn’t have exposed my chest. I would never have gone topless anyway, never, even in my younger days. Don’t forget, I was born in 1912.

My breasts were always small, and I didn’t consider myself very good-looking, but I was vivacious and always had lots of friends and boyfriends. My body didn’t bother me.

I’m very careful with my appearance. I wear a prosthesis. I forgot it once on holiday. I had to use loads and loads of plastic bags! If I go swimming, I have a costume with an insert. I used to swim every day until three years ago. When I was 97, I would swim 20 lengths in one go, but my physiotherapist said it was too much.”

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