In the year I turned ten, an older brother decided to create a photograph album in honour of our parents’ twentieth wedding anniversary. He opened it with pages that flashed back images of our parents’ wedding day in Haarlem, Holland in 1942, a windy grey day during the war, when everyone dressed in their finest in front of the Cathedral of St Bavo in the centre of Haarlem. 

Thereafter, this brother dedicated a single page to each of us children, beginning with my oldest brother. One or two photographs, each carefully placed on the page and around which my second oldest brother gave each of us a title. 

Under my oldest brother’s image he wrote the word ‘philanthropist’, a word whose meaning I could not fathom at ten, beside which in quotation marks in white ink on a black page, the words: ‘I hates everybody’. 

I do not remember the label ascribed to each one of us but there was one younger brother named ‘Nature Boy ‘and the sister below me my older brother named ‘Princess’.

Next to her image, my brother drew a window, in white ink on a black background. You knew you were looking from the inside to the outside as through this window you could see a shining star giving off light. 

My brother gave me the label, ‘poetess’, which suited me well. I wanted to be a poet. 

My older brother ascribed each of us some distinguishing feature right down to the then youngest, my baby brother, who featured in the album as a large baby over one year old in a round plastic bath tub. He looks up to the camera. 

A roly poly baby boy with a sweet face. And onto this image my older brother tacked a thin strip of paper to cover his baby brother’s genitals.

Onto this strip of paper he pencilled the word, ‘censored’.

 This decision made everyone laugh but I could never understand the need for such censorship even though I had already noticed the way the few men who featured naked in my father’s art books had fig leaves draped strategically over their men’s parts and the women, many more women who were fully naked, likewise had strips of material draped around their pubic areas. 

I went to see Hannah Gadsby perform the other night and she too remarked on the decision of the old masters to drape material around a woman’s lower half while her breasts tended to be fully exposed or one might pop out of a dress unbidden. 

Hannah Gadsby alerted me to the fact that this anomaly has stayed with us since those times. That we have elected to keep these images and to admire them for centuries and we tend not to consider the significance of such artistic decisions. 

Though I suspect serious historians, artists and anthologists might have wondered and drawn conclusions about these decisions and what they say about the culture of their times.

Hannah Gadsby’s take is exhilarating and exciting. Because she makes us look at things through fresh eyes, makes us wonder why for instance in one image she showed there is a woman eyes raised heavenwards, fully clothed behind her cello.

A beautiful instrument, and yet there as her music stand, a plump but short cherub with tiny wings and stubby penis, hands up, his palms flat to hold the score. 

Why that decision? Gadsby asks. Had they not yet invented music stands when clearly they’d managed to create the cello.

 Why all the cherubs? I ask.

 Must have something to do with the religion of the times and all the angels in heaven. But it strikes me whenever I see these images, I take them for granted.

I look at them as though their meaning is set in stone. 

In the past I have not questioned the way Hannah Gadsby questions today and when she questions she sets me wondering again about why for instance my brother decided to put that thin strip of paper over my baby brother’s penis. 

On the very last page of his album, my older brother also pasted a small square of paper on which he had printed a large black question mark. 

A question mark that allowed those in the know to recognise that our mother was, as we put it in those days, expecting.

She was expecting her tenth baby, her eleventh in fact if you consider her first daughter died at five months of age, three years after my parents had married during the Hunger Winter of war torn 1945. 

And the question mark suffered a similar fate, though my brother did not know this at the time he created his album.

The question mark signified another daughter who was still born on 19 November in 1962, soon after my tenth birthday.

And they named her Anna Maria. 

I can name her because she’s dead. 

I can’t name the others of my siblings to give them their privacy because in this brave new world where so much is open to view and so much can be written or arranged on the screen and page, we must still tread carefully so as not to offend. 

I first learned the word the word censored from the piece of paper over my brother’s baby penis. It stays with me still. 

A lump or thickening

The other night I dreamed I had cancer. My leg swelled at the calf muscle as though someone had taken out a chunk and repositioned it to the front of my leg. I hobbled about like a person with a broken leg. 

It was one of those dreams where I woke to a wash of relief when I realised it was not true. 

And yet it could be true and this morning I find myself wondering whether a dream like this might be a way of preparing myself for the worst that is to come.

Not necessarily that I have cancer but the idea that my body will one day fail me, and I will look death in the face. 

Maybe dreams like this give us an opportunity to prepare even though in this dream I was distressed, I was also surviving. I could survive the knowledge that one day soon I would be no more. 

A thought far worse than the one I once struggled with when I was a child, trying to imagine what the world was like before I was in it. 

I suspect many of us think like this. The world that existed before we were here feels different from the world that existed without us in it. 

I’m often dogged by occasional bursts of hypochondria, the hideous preoccupation that there might be something seriously wrong with something in my body and if I don’t get it rectified it’ll kill me. 

I was a student at university the day I noticed a lump on top of my foot near my big toe. A lump of something under my flesh between the bone and my skin that rolled around under my finger when I massaged it. 

The fact it was not painful worried me.

There was an advertisement doing the rounds of my childhood: 

‘A lump or thickening in the breast or elsewhere,’ the stern BBC voice over said, ‘could be a sign of cancer. And then series of lumps on the screen.

‘A lump or thickening anywhere, needs a doctor’s attention.’ 

And cancer was one of those horrid things that tricked you into thinking all was well even when faced with a lump because in the beginning and without any other symptoms, cancer was not necessarily painful. 

In those days I did not visit a regular GP but took myself to which ever practice was nearby to home or work. 

On the bus down Warrigal Road I looked at my foot snug in its summer sandals and contemplated my fate.

I was convinced I had cancer and even though I was only twenty-two, it was only a matter of time before I would be dead. 

My state of mind on going into the doctor’s surgery was one of terror but after I saw the doctor and left the surgery, my mind did a summersault. Similar to somersaults I’ve since completed when some aberration in my body causes me to imagine death is around the corner, after which I’m given a reprieve.

‘You have a ganglion’ the doctor in the Murrumbeena practice told me as a train rattled by and almost swallowed up his words.’

‘A what?’

‘A ganglion. Nothing to worry about. Most likely it’ll go away of its own accord. Just a cluster of cells bunched together for reasons we don’t fully understand.’ 

‘Not cancer then?’ 

‘Not at all,’ the doctor said. ‘In the old days people treated their ganglions by dropping a bible on top. That way you disperse the lump.’

He rubbed at my foot as if to smooth away his ganglion. ‘You can rub at it this way that if you want, or leave it till it disappears of its own accord. Or it might just stay.’

I did not drop a bible onto my foot. I settled for its presence for several weeks more. And then one day I looked down and it was gone. 

Never to reappear, at least not there. 

Other lumps have erupted since but I’m more sanguine about them now, knowing that beyond a certain age, the process of ageing offers us all manner of skin deformities and although it’s imperative to keep an eye out for the scary ones that signal a melanoma, most of them are just signs of ageing.

My maternal grandmother died of stomach cancer when she was 67. To me as a four-year-old she seemed ancient. Now when I’m fast approaching that age, I reckon she was a youngster.

Too young by half to die. But my mother told me long before she herself died that her mother had ignored all the signs.

Her mother had been too frightened to take herself off the doctor to check out what was causing her bloated belly and the large lump that rested below her waist. 

My grandmother might have dreamed of having cancer but if she did, she ignored it.

I, on the other hand, in my hypochondriacal state, maybe pay too much attention.