M is for Mammaries

I like my boobs.

I used to hate them.

When I was ten, my breasts started to grow at an alarming pace.  While my friend’s sported small nubs under white t-shirts, my breasts swelled in time lapse photography. I was an avid gymnast and was deeply perplexed how my top heavy center of gravity was effecting me. I slipped off the beam, slid off the uneven parallel bars and fell over the vault, angry at my new breasts for shattering my dream of becoming the next Nadia Comanici.  By the time I was in 9th grade, I was a 36 B and was forced to buy a real bra.  My mom took me to JC Penney’s and showed me how to bend over and pour my breasts into the cups “like pouring water into a pitcher. ”

The boys noticed my bra and relentlessly teased me calling my breasts sweater meat, melons, tatas, Dairy Pillows, head lights, knockers, hood ornaments and funbags. In Ms Rosenthal’s class they snapped my bra straps from behind and called my bra over the shoulder boulder holders, tit slingers and flopper stoppers.

I hated my bra like a younger sibling and it was the first thing I took off when I got home.

It still is.

By the time I was in High School I was a 36 C and I had discovered hairspray and boys.  Every guy I met talked to my breasts and so I learned to hide them like a secret weapon under large men’s shirts, overalls and trench coats.  But I liked the power they had and by the time I got to college, I began to love my breasts.

My sexuality was in full bloom and my nipples became so sensitive I had to wear padded bras to keep from getting aroused in Anthropology class. I was a dog in heat.  In my freshman year I met and fell in love with a handsome art major in my dorm.  I modeled for him and he sketched my body. He made a sculpture of my torso from a  fallen tree, his gray eyes squinting as he worked.

We married ten years later and our only child was born a month early, two weeks before my 30th birthday.  The labor was long and painful and that evening as Dave and I spooned together on the small hospital bed, an Indian doctor entered, turning on the lights.  We squinted at him, delirious and annoyed.

“The baby is belly lellow and the billy luben is belly high,” he said.

“What did he say?”   I rubbed my eyes and squinted at Dave.

“Something about Billy,” Dave shrugged, blinking repeatedly to wake up.  A nurse was called in to translate that our son was jaundiced from an undeveloped liver. Dave and I took the elevator to see our tiny baby in the world’s smallest tanning booth.  Bright lights shone down on his yellow, see thru skin and slept in a black sleep mask.   He would be there for a week. I had wanted to breast feed so the nurses told me to pump at home and bring the bottles in.

Leaving the hospital with an empty car seat in the back, made my breast’s ache.  When I arrived home, I took out the fancy Medela pump my friends gave me, signing the card, “From, Your breast friends”.   The pump looked scarily bovine with two giant plastic cups and small tubes leading into a bottle.  It made lots of noise but I couldn’t get it to work.  I tried again and again.  As the hours passed, my breasts became as big as overblown balloons.  Dave tried to help me and we positioned the cups in different ways, reading the instructions over and over again.  “This is harder than assembling Ikea furniture,” Dave mumbled.  We finally gave up and went to bed.  In the middle of the night, I woke up in a puddle of breast milk.  While Dave changed the sheets, I tried the pump again, mooing when he came in to help but after four drops in the bottle, I gave up.

By the next morning, my breasts were so big I could practically put my chin on them.  At the hospital, a Jamaican nurse with dreadlocks, and huge teeth, greeted me, staring at my shirt.

” Oh Dahlin’.. You didn’t pump your breasts?”

“I couldn’t do it!” I said whining like a child as she took my hand and pulled me into a small empty room.  I sniffled as I watched her take two small diapers and run them under hot water.

“Take off your shirt and bra darlin’,” she commanded ringing out the diapers, steam rising up from them in curly vapors. She placed the two diapers on my breasts like she was hanging out laundry and abruptly left the room mumbling,  “Dis’ll make you feel betta.  I’ll be right back.”

My veins that were blue and stretched started to relax and I felt my skin loosen.  When I closed my eyes, I could feel the milk inside me flowing, moving forward into my body and the odd sensation of something falling.

“How you feelin’?” she asked returning with an industrialized version of the pump I had at home

“It feels weird, like something’s happening.”

“Dat’s your millk lettin’ down,” the nurse said.

She showed me how to turn on the pump, how to get a good seal with the plastic cups and how to hold my body so the milk would flow. It was strange watching my own nipples go back and forth, but I filled up two bottles in five minutes.

I wanted to kiss her.

When we finally brought Aidan home from the hospital, he woke up every hour to eat.  The family bed we had learned about in our progressive birthing class in Park Slope didn’t work and so I fed Aidan in a small Kennedy rocker I bought at a stoop sale for 20 dollars.  As the nights and days merged into a fuzzy, sleepless blur I became an expert at breastfeeding.  I loved the deep quiet night where the only sound were the squeaks and slurps coming from Aidan, his long fingers opening and closing around mine like a starfish.

Once, when I was driving with my parents on vacation, my father was teasing me as he often did.   I said nothing but intermittently squirted my dad with breast milk from the back seat.

“What was that?” he said wiping his head as if a bird somehow landed inside the car and shit on him.  This went on for miles until my mother turned around and caught me. “Marian! That is so inappropriate.”

After I finished breastfeeding, my boobs were so big I had to wear two sports bras to exercise.  Unlike the scoop and clasp technique my mom taught me when I was ten years old, putting on a sports bra felt like climbing into a condom.   After the struggle of getting the bra on, my nipples would have to be realigned so as not to give the appearance of being cross-eyed.  I hated seeing myself in aerobics, my nipples crammed into my bra looking in opposite directions.

After my husband was killed on 9-11, I lost twenty pounds and with it my large breasts.  This felt fitting since everything was different from what I’d known.  On the first anniversary of 9-11, I was mildly shocked when one of my widow friends didn’t join us at Ground Zero and got breast implants instead. “I just want to be knocked out and wake up with a new life,” she said.  I didn’t blame her.  The harsh reality of having to date again after twenty years, sent us all to plastic surgeons.  I met with an older Jewish doctor who examined me like a critical parent,. “Do your wrinkles bother you?” he asked.

“Not until now,” I giggled nervously, a habit I have when I am uncomfortable.

You’re stomach is not that big, but we could do a leetle tuck.” And of course there were my breasts.   He thought they could use a lift and described in great, nauseating detail how it was done.  He explained the process of taking off the nipples that sounded like removing the top half of an Oreo. I imagined the doctor in his scrubs accidentally dropping my nipple, the pink nub sliding under the operating table.

The widow’s breasts came out perfect.  Once, when three of us went down to Mexico we found ourselves on a beach where the women went topless.  I loved sunbathing topless and always marveled at the variety of sizes and shapes of breasts that seemed as infinite as fish in the ocean, until breast implants of course.  When the widow took off her shirt, they didn’t flop to the side like mine, they pointed due north in perfect pink peaks.  Still, I passed on the plastic surgery hopeful that if Dave loved me the way I was, perhaps someone else could.

I still love my breasts.

I take care of them.

I get mammograms.

Every year, I step into the white lab with the giant machines. Every year, the same bored Puerto Rican woman in green scrubs tells me to remove my gown.  She puts a strip of pink stickers around my nipples like they were prize-winning pigs.

“Lean in, turn a little bit more, turn a little bit to the left,” She pushes me against the machine, she raises my arm, she makes me hold a pole and arch back like some demented stripper and when I am in the most uncomfortable position possible she says “Don’t move” and she turns a medieval knob that flattens out my breast between two plastic plates like a skin panini.

“Don’t breathe” the technicians says which is of course all I want to do and when I can hear my own heart beat in my ears and am convinced my breast is going to rip off my chest, she presses the magic button that releases my breast.  It is as satisfying as milk letting down.

Then we do it again. Two more times. Then she does the whole thing on the other side.

When I am done, I turn back and look at the room.

“You forget something?” the technician asks.

”Yeah, I actually think my breast might still be on there.”

She doesn’t laugh.

She never does.

A few years ago, they asked me to come back in for a biopsy.  I was in a different room, with different technicians and the needle was so large, it looked like a prop from a horror film. “Can you take a little fat from my stomach while you’re in there?” I joked.

They didn’t laugh either.

The following week they called to tell me I had cancer.  I was driving on the LIE at the time, my son in the front seat. We were on our way to vacation on Fire Island.  I didn’t pull over.  I had worked too hard to convince my son life was going to be normal and good.  I couldn’t stop now.  But I was crying so hard I could barely see and Aidan, now nine, asked “What’s wrong? Who was that?”

When we got to Fire Island, it rained the entire week and it was so cold we wore every piece of clothing we packed.  Thankfully, my sister, her husband and two little girls were with us and did a great job of distracting Aidan while I made countless phone calls.  The service was spotty and I had to stand in the outdoor shower with an umbrella to call my doctor, a brusque woman who seemed almost excited by the news.

“I had another 911 widow who had breast cancer. “ she said.  “I think it’s from the dust at the site but of course I can’t prove that.” Her voice went in and out, as if she was on a boat on the ocean.  “You just get the surgery, you get the reconstruction, you get the chemo and then you get back to your life,” she said ticking off a grocery list.

“Is that what the widow did?” I asked.


“Did she survive?”

The call dropped.

The cancer was in its earliest stages and I went to three different surgeons who had varying opinions of what to do with the lump in my left breast.  Two doctors wanted to take the breast off, but I decided on the third, a young woman who was known as “a breast conservationist” a term that made me imagine people with homemade signs staging a protest. “Save the boobs!” And I wanted desperately to keep mine.

At the St. Vincent’s Cancer Center on 15th street, the staff was fascinated by my tumor that was so far back it couldn’t be palpated.  They took this as a challenge and every time I came for an appointment, doctors, oncologists, surgeons, residents and interns took turns poking and rolling my breasts, their brows furrowed in concentration, determined to find it. “ I haven’t seen this much action since high school!”  I joked.

They didn’t laugh.

After a lumpectomy, a re-incision and six weeks of radiation, I was as good as new. Being close to losing something, makes you love it even more and I now I love my breasts more than ever, scars and all.

Every six months I go back to the cancer center to be examined by my oncologist, a world renowned breast cancer specialist who wears thick plastic glasses and Manolo Blahnik heels.

“How are you?” I always ask.

“How do you think I am? I work in a cancer center.”  She always replies.

I make endless jokes but she doesn’t laugh.  The breast cancer people are a tough crowd, but I make jokes anyway, yelling after my oncologist as she walks out of the room.

“Thanks for the mammaries.”


14 thoughts on “M is for Mammaries

  1. Denise

    Oh Marian. How I love reading what you write! Your words always leave me touched at your ability to express things in such a way that even the most touching (sometimes sad) parts leave me smiling or laughing! Your constant need to bring some laughter to all those that you meet is a gift! Here’s hoping that some day you will be rewarded by a chuckle from one of them! Love you!

  2. Tina bilcher muphy

    M….I could read for hours….perfectly written. You had me reminiscing on my nickname back in high school, which my double D’s earned me, it was “Chester” that the boys called me, but never to my “face” always either behind my back, or more frequently below my chin. I can also relate to the flourish during gestation, they grew to an “F/g” which when I first saw this size written this way in a motherhood catalog, I thought it was an abbreviation for “f#[+ing ridiculous”! The slight difference in my case, is I still haven’t lost the “baby weight”, and live my life some days loving the “e”s they’ve become, and some days hiding them under now fashionable infinity scarves…depending on my mood.
    But one thing I’m sure we can all agree on, is that we all have these “Twins” which hold great power, and set us apart from many other living things, natural or silicone, they are a force to be reckoned with!

  3. merri

    love that you squirted Ira and his reaction, so vivid and funny, it made me laugh so hard I think a squirted a little pee I told Joan it was from Coco licking her paws. The dog has been snoring for an hour. xx mm

  4. Jodi Conti

    Marian, your words are mighty,
    your wit endless and your ability to deal with adversity unparalleled. So many reactions to this piece, so many emotions running through me. Please never stop writing, never stop telling your stories. The world is a better place because of them.

  5. Laura Horowitz

    Marian you NEVER cease to amaze me. May God continue to bless you & your beautiful breasts and especially your relentless sense of humor God love you xoxo always Laura

  6. Kim Sorensen

    I had no idea you had to deal with this too!! I am so very happy you are alright!! Thanks for sharing such intimate and personal stories with people you don’t even know, but think about you and support you all the way! WE ARE NOT WORTHY!!! 🙂

  7. Ira Goldstein

    Hey Marian
    I haven’t been able to comb my hair in the back since that day in the car. I have a cute little curl that I tried to cut off once but nipped my ear instead. I think I will just cherish it!

  8. Theo Dorian

    Wow, that was a great essay. Gave me a good laugh and a good cry in a few easy minutes. Now life goes on.

  9. Courtney Fenyo

    ‘Thanks for the mamaries.’ Lol. Your endings are the best! So are the beginnings and the middles. Loved it. Very happy you’re in good health now. Never never never give up. You are a brave woman and always put up the good fights!!
    Xoxo Courtney Fenyo

  10. Karen MacNeil Hartmann

    Dear Marian,

    I had the “late Bloomer” curse! In grade 8 the boys called me a carpenter’s dream- flat as a board and never been nailed, and pirate’s dream because I had a sunken chest! I WANTED a ”starter bra”! I asked my dad for money for unmentionables–my first bra cost $5.
    Happily, puberty did finally happen and my girls became respectable! I breast fed both my chitlans for three years and look now on my biology with awe! Of mention, after 3 years of breastfeeding, they did resemble empty sweat-socks for a while! And no, I don’t walk around in sandals and tie die t-shirts.
    I love your essays and how they make me laugh, cry and think. For the record, I love patients who can laugh while undergoing those demeaning exams!
    Looking forward to ‘N’. N is for …?


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