"Great Aunt Abigail’s Big Bosoms" By Judith Newcomb Stiles
When I was eye-level with the wine glasses at Thanksgiving dinner, I sat opposite Great Aunt Abigail Newcomb and her gigantic bosoms that were wrinkly and jiggled a lot when she laughed. I was a child with no bosoms of my own and I wondered why she wore a low-cut dress. Her wrinkly water balloon bosoms created havoc when she laughed right in front of everyone.
The point of Thanksgiving dinner for Abigail and the grownups was to drink a lot of booze and enjoy life because winter on Cape Cod was coming. By December, the sea slapped the twisted peninsula with a blanket of grey sky and defeat. Wet wind. Crackers wilted. Sponges never dried. Envelopes sealed themselves when you weren’t looking. Lots of Thanksgiving food and booze was the last hurrah before the grey.
What Great Aunt Abigail didn’t know on that particular Thanksgiving was that her daughter-in-law would drop dead from a brain hemorrhage on Mother’s Day, followed by her only son who would die on Halloween when a swinging construction crane would smash his head like a pumpkin. And this would leave Great Aunt Abigail and her wrinkly bosoms to raise her nine grandchildren, five boys and four girls. She was about to celebrate her seventieth birthday only to be drafted back into motherhood.
Great Aunt Abigail was a good substitute mother for the next twenty years, and at eighty-five, she could still sputter strict orders from her rocking chair. She would wave her cane in the air and point.
“Before you start homework, peel the potatoes. And you, feed the cat. And you, don't track sand all over the house.”
When I became a mother myself, I desperately wanted to talk to her and get some mothering tips. I needed somebody to tell me how to get through sleepless nights, the midnight crying, the endless spit up, and still be a mother who could love her baby. My nipples were raw and sore from the tugging and I was losing my mind from lack of sleep. Great Aunt Abigail had only two breasts, which were long empty, but somehow she spread her love over all nine grandchildren, so I hoped she could help me.
The big question I wanted to ask her was: How could it be that a baby can fill a mother with love, but also hate? Love, hate, love, hate. I loved my baby, but was afraid to say out loud how I hated the howling, the poopy diapers, my cracked and bleeding nipples, and the endless tidying up of baby stuff.
By the time I called her, too bad for me, Great Aunt Abigail’s breasts jiggled no more. Two weeks after I gave birth she died and then her bosoms were cremated into ash along with the rest of her body to lie for eternity underground in the Wellfleet Cemetery. I went to visit Great Aunt Abigail anyway. When I found her headstone, I sprawled out on the grass next to a bunch of wilting flowers. I covered each of my breasts with my hands and consoled them for doing their job of breastfeeding without an instruction manual or any advice from an older woman. Nursing a baby ballooned my breasts up to the size of Great Aunt Abigail’s, which dropped me into the world of breast gazers - men whose eyes were too busy scanning my milk machines instead of my face. I wanted to ask Great Aunt Abigail if this ever bothered her.
I told Great Aunt Abigail’s headstone that in a strange way, breasts have been a timeline of my life. First, as a child with dime-size flat nipples that were no different from my brother’s. Then puberty, when my nipples popped out like sore cherry pits stuck inside my chest. Then bikinis that announced I’m a sexual being. Hello world, my big sister is not the only one with boobs. Then with my men, my breasts became doorbells to our love. Ring the bell of my nipples for good sex. Then a breast cancer scare when my breasts were slammed between plates of glass, wires piercing each breast, followed by a doctor ‘s declaration, You do not have cancer. Then with breastfeeding, my Abigail-size bosoms came and went like two piles of snow.
The Wellfleet Cemetery was getting crowded, a Grand Central Station of angels, a finger pointing up to heaven, and yellow lichen that covered the letters on the granite gravestone of Abigail's son. As I tried to scrape off the lichen with my fingernail, a sword fight of do’s and don’ts broke out in the center of my chest.
My left breast whispered, DO everything you possibly can to be a good mother, and DON’T mess up your kid.
But my right breast whispered, The tide goes in and out twice a day no matter what you do, so stop trying so hard.
I gave up on the lichen and lay down on my back for a while longer, while the grey sky hovered over me and the headstones.
Do's and Don'ts? I realized there was only one thing I knew for sure - when my breasts finally complete their duty, they’ll go the way of Great Aunt Abigail’s bosoms to be ash in a jar underground at the Wellfleet Cemetery. In good company.
I am a potter who makes cremation urns for dead people. On my wheel, I often think about birth, life, motherhood, ashes, and what becomes of so-called medical waste after an abortion? In my writing, I take a hard (but also funny) look at what women on Cape Cod did about unwanted pregnancies before Roe v. Wade.
Judith Stiles writes for the Italian publication, Ytali.com about all things American. For ten years she wrote a weekly column for The Villager Newspaper in NYC for lousy pay and the love of writing. Her literary essays and short stories have appeared in Europa Quotidiano, ZibbyMag, Ex-Puritan, and the anthology Hemingway Shorts. “Pheromones and Fusion” was published in the New York Times.