I’m sitting on the floor before a television set, one of those old black-and-white boxes with the rabbit ears on top, propped upon a small table. My parents, brother and I are visiting friends or family, I don’t know who, or where. In my memory I am alone in the room, which doesn’t mean there aren’t other kids there, just that they are not part of this story. The adults are in another room. I don’t know what I’m watching, but I know what I see, because the scene has been seared on my mind for most of my life: two women — one petite and professional, the other taller and elegant, with a fancy hat — walk up a large staircase and into a small room. The hat and the clothes are old fashioned, which could mean anything before 1970. The two women are followed furtively by a young boy, a bit older than me, perhaps; he waits until they have shut the door of the room and then peers in through the keyhole, or maybe a small window. Once inside the room, the taller, more stylish woman begins to undress. She is there to try on a new bra. She removes her top and undergarment, and bares her breasts.
That’s all I recall: the foreplay of the women mounting the stairs, then the boy watching wide-eyed as the woman slowly bares her magnificent breasts.
And me: watching as the boy watches, unwittingly complicit in his juvenile voyeurism. Enraptured.
The bliss is broken when a real-life adult comes into the room and I am whisked away: away from the TV, away from whatever it was I was watching, away from the breasts.
This memory has revisited me many times over the years, and I have often wondered what programme or old movie I had chanced upon. The scene on the screen is as clear to me as any of the childhood memories I have of actual events. In fact, when I remember it, it’s as if I myself have a camera and am filming from on high. Not only do I see the two women, the small upstairs room, the naughty boy and the breasts flickering in front of me. I also see myself: I gaze down through my memory’s eye onto 6- or 7-year-old me, kneeling in the middle of a living room in someone else’s home, in front of the television, eyes like saucers.
I also have a clear memory of what I felt: that strange yet pleasant tingling sensation between my legs that I will sometimes later (and perhaps before) feel when I’m watching TV with my parents, that makes me leave the room in embarrassment, and to enjoy these unbidden physical pleasures in private.
If I were looking for a straightforward coming out story, I might pen this as a formative episode on my long and winding road to lesbianism. Was this the first time I saw the naked breasts of a woman other than my mother? I have vaguer memories of being captivated by women’s breasts when I was a child, long before I grew a pair of my own. My best friend and I used to accompany my father to the grocery store when we were kids and wait for him at the entrance, saying that we wanted to flick through the comics. Instead, we reached for Playboy and Penthouse and tore through the pages, sneaking peaks at the women’s naked bodies. This was in the years before supermarket security guards stalked around, shooing kids away from the magazine stalls, and before radical feminists fought to have girlie mags moved to the top shelf. I stole my furtive glances of soft porn tits where I could get them. And they were titillating.
What is a prepubescent girl’s desire for breasts, anyway? A longing to touch them, to eat (from) them, to have them? All of the above? By the time I write these words on the eve of 2021, I have moved well beyond the Monique Wittig and Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival days of my sapphic youth to the multi-gendered queerness of my middle years, when people I know who once identified as dykes call themselves they, and are having top surgery to remove their breasts. For me these changes are nothing so straightforward as progress or regression. As with my own coming out story, I see gender and sexual identity as messy stories made up of happenstance, history and mystery.
The end of 2020 proves a potent time for reflection on pasts, futures and the unknowable. Those of us raised in Christian traditions — in my case, avowedly secular, in my that of my partner, Catholic — knew that this was going to be a strange Christmas. In theory I was all in favour of a toned-down celebration. After all, in revolutionary Cuba they cancelled Christmas for 30 years. Surely the rest of us could do it just this once? Yet I understood the disappointment of people who wanted extravagant festivities and have been denied them by the pandemic. For me, the lure of family ritual is never greater than at Christmas time. To the extent that I have any nostalgia for my childhood, it manifests itself in full glory in the festive season.
Maybe it was the sadness — at the loss of a friend to Covid in October, at not being able to gather many of my dearests close to me — that made me go all out for tradition this year. I warned my partner, Viene, that I planned to impose my childhood Christmas Day schedule on our two-person, one-terrier household, and they indulged me generously. We awoke at dawn, opened stockings in bed with coffee, had luxurious Sunday morning sex, even though it was Friday (OK — this is the adult version of childhood tradition), took a long walk with the dog, came home to open presents and eat lunch, and sat down with hot chocolate and whiskey to watch Mon Oncle Antoine: not exactly a Christmas classic, but a Canadian classic with a yuletide theme. Two Canadians in Glasgow indulging our mutual longing for a snowy Christmas in a city thousands of miles from our country of birth, during a global pandemic.
Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine is set during a snowstorm on Christmas Eve in a small asbestos mining town in post-war Québec. The uncle of the title is a middle-aged childless undertaker who also runs the town’s general store; his nephew, Benoît, is a good-natured and curious teenager who apprentices to Antoine. The movie is filled with the familiar characters of a conservative, religious, rural Québec that was fast disappearing by the time it was filmed in 1971, in the heady days of nationalism and secularisation: the Anglo boss who harasses his Francophone workers; the dirt poor miners and their families; the fur-clad company manager who rides through town on a horse-pulled cart, tossing miserly gifts to eager and hungry children, after failing to give their fathers a raise for the second year in a row; the farmer with five young children who has to leave his family behind to go make a buck chopping down trees in the sub-zero temperatures; the local priest who sneaks sips of the communion wine; the undertaker’s devoted but bored wife, who has an affair with the younger cashier; the adolescent girl abused by her father; and assorted members of the local bourgeoisie who, on the afternoon of December 24th, gather in the general store to make merry and await midnight mass.
In the midst of the celebrations a beautiful tall, slender woman enters the store, dressed to kill. All eyes turn towards her. “The notary’s wife!” The fashionable woman approaches the counter and whispers to the storekeeper’s wife, “Has it arrived?”. “Oui!” the latter responds, signalling to the woman to follow her upstairs. The two turn towards the big staircase in the centre of the room and start up the steps.
And here, half a century later, my memory is played out on the television — this time wide-screened and in full colour — shot by shot: the women reach the top of the stairs and go into a small room where the smaller, older one closes the door. They are followed by two boys, Benoît and a slightly older kid, who open the door just a crack and peer in, ogle-eyed, as the notary’s wife begins to undress, removing her bra, and baring her breasts.
The film version of My First Pair of Breasts is full of small inaccuracies: the glamourous woman is younger and slimmer than the one in my head, and her breasts are smaller (in my child’s mind she is middle-aged and matronly, with a pair of proper knockers); there are two boys instead of one, and they gaze not through a hole but through the small crack in the open door. And my short, televised childhood scene faded out before the half-naked woman reclad herself in a delicate — and to my adult eyes, frankly kinky — black lace corset. Or maybe, entranced by the breasts, I simply edited that part out.
Now that I know that my secret childhood memory has been shared by millions of others over the past half century — viewers of a movie that regularly makes it to the top of lists of best-ever Canadian film— I realise I could have solved the puzzle years ago. In this age of social media, with a call-out to the hive mind any number of my film-buff and Canadiana-culture-vulture friends would have set me straight.
But it wouldn’t have been the same. Here I am shacked up for Christmas with my beloved, who has gone north not to chop trees, but to work from home, thinking a lot of what it means to be home. In a year that has been so difficult in so many ways for so many, revisiting the memory of my first pair of breasts when I least expected it was like receiving an enchanted gift from my past. Perhaps not unlike the question of sexual identity itself, treasured childhood memories are most powerful when we resist the urge to decipher then, leaving them instead to be relished with a sense of mystery.