When I turned 13, Marilyn Monroe was the most famous movie star in the whole world, the sweater-girl look was all the rage, and women with large breasts had their pick of men. At least that was the notion I was growing up with. Women considered their breasts a power center as well as a measure of beauty. No one bothered to tell an impressionable young girl that beauty cannot be measured by bra size.
My battle with breast cancer taught me that and more. The disease that strikes fear into the heart of every woman is so emotionally devastating because of the belief that I needed my breasts like Wonder Woman needed her gold bracelets. After losing a breast to cancer, I had to come to terms with my loss. Reflection revealed that in my youth, while I was fixated on movie stars, the very essence of womanhood was in front of me all along.
My grandmother was widowed at the age of 35 and left with six children to feed. To keep the family together, she toiled in a garment factory sewing overcoats. Her life was difficult and often frightening, but she conquered poverty and loneliness through sheer determination. She helped care for me and my three siblings and along with a host of mundane household chores, she taught me how to crochet and sew. I bless her for those skills to this day.
Grandma’s morning ritual included the donning of a corset, a most complicated garment in her simple wardrobe. Regardless, her breasts did not make a show of themselves and were simply soft curves that gave feminine shape to her short, slightly plump body. When she died at the age of 81, there was a great emptiness in my life that was difficult to articulate until recently when I came to understand that what made my grandmother so very special was her entire demeanor. She carried herself with grace, never spoke badly about anyone, never gossiped, and never said anything that was unnecessary. The air around her was perfume and unbeknown to me, seeped into my pores. There was no one thing in particular that gave her incredible power over people. Not breasts. Not gold bracelets. It was everything.
The test of my womanhood came when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 57. I managed to put on a brave front and cloak myself with courageous words, but deep down, I wondered how Wonder Woman could survive without her bracelets. Eventually I discovered the source of my power, a secret wellspring fed by life’s experiences and the whisperings of a grandmother.
My recovery came through an outreach to others who were facing a similar trauma. Looking back, it was in many ways a remarkable experience. I came to know that there is so much more to women than gold bracelets. I am a composite of my feminine ancestors and the women who taught me, nurtured me, and loved me. A woman’s power lies in her willingness to share life’s lessons in word and deed. This I believe. My grandmother told me so.
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