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.