observations and opinion
Caution: there’s a picture of a naked lady in this article. It may burn your innocent eyes.
Like many lads my age, I owe my first look at a naked lady, to Hugh Hefner. But I also owe it to rheumatic fever.
Rheumatic fever is an inflammatory disease, often affecting the heart and joints. It is hatched by strep. When she was a child in Scotland, my mother had a crippling case; unable to walk, little Cathy had to be carried around the house. Her hands immobilized, her father brought an old piano into the place so that she could flex her fingers. At some point the condition relented and Cathy was able to move.
This illness altered Cathy in many ways. I later diagnosed, amateurishly, that being the centre of the universe and the apple of her father’s eye, made the rest of life rather disappointing. Certainly no one could ever measure up to her father, Alexander Duff. Cathy often heard that she looked like “someone had stolen her scone.” Rheumatic fever made her slightly sour.
It also damaged her heart. And so it was forty years later, Cathy went into the hospital for what was then pretty novel surgery – to remove a damaged valve and install a plastic replacement. She was hospitalized for months.
Which brings us back to the naked ladies.
With mum in the hospital and my brother having moved out, at age seven I found myself the reluctant ward of my father – my big, often absent, not very competent father. Who worked shifts. It was decided early that I had to be farmed out to stay with other people, and so began my nomadic period.
Living with other people is peculiar for a child. Everything is strange – the rooms, the air around you, the sounds, the voices. You are living in someone else’s life, and you know it. Being but not belonging in a place, you learn the arts of the tourist: self-containment, watchfulness and the polite ability to force other people’s unpleasant food down your throat. You learn to learn. Most importantly you become aware that your way of doing things, is not the only way.
You also learn about naked ladies. Or at least, I did.
After a brief period of bumping about different homes (I saw a hockey game on TV for the first time – Canadians really like their hockey, I discovered) it was decided that I had to stay in one spot. That was my Aunt Ina and Uncle Larry’s house. And so I moved in.
Despite the family relation, this was an alien environment. It had style – wall to wall carpet, plastic on one of the couches, appliances of some modern 60s hue. Most of all, it was sterile: where home was kind of a gummy, hazy booze-can, Aunt Ina seemed to spray Lysol on every surface. Every thing had a place and you know where it was kept? In its place. You could – for real and true – bounce a coin off the bedspread. Also, there was a bedspread. Hadn’t seen one of those before.
Ina kept a tight ship. She was, in my experience, somewhat stern. I am reminded of her often, every time I see Mrs. McGonagle walk around Hogwarts.
Her house was the cleanest and tidiest residence that I ever knew. And it had some splendid diversions: a pool table in the rec room. A rec room, with a bar (not then useful to me). And a colour television.
And it also had naked ladies. Did I mention the naked ladies?
My cousin Stu was older – a teenager. One day while visiting his room I found, in his tidy closet, neatly stacked on the floor, a pile of magazines. Playboy Magazines. After spying them, I summoned the nerve to ask my cousin if I could look at them sometime.
Yup, he said, in the manner than teenaged boys have of saying things without really thinking about them. Great. I was in!
So one afternoon when Stu was out, I went into his room, opened his closet door and sat down on the floor. And I began to read Playboy. Not for the articles, as it turns out.
What I can first remember was a sense of amazement. There they were: the girls. They all seemed like lionesses, staring at the camera with cool animal dignity, wondering what you were doing near their lair: Yes? Can I help you?
They were also naked, stretched out on rugs, arms akimbo, legs deftly positioned to avoid any display of pubic hair (that was the Playboy rule book back then, apparently). They all had perfect, college co-ed smiles, apple cheeks and glossy hair. And breasts.
Was it exciting? Yes, but I can’t say that it was really “sexual” in any real sense. At least, not in any sense I understood then. To this seven year old lad, flipping carefully through the polished paper pages of Playboy for the first time, was like discovering another country. It was as if I had found a really cool issue of National Geographic. It even had a map folded in the middle.
Well, not actually a map.
I approached the centrefold with trepidation. This was a single long sheet of paper, the size of three pages, folded over and stapled into the middle of the magazine. It had one photo on it. One big photo. The centrefold.
The centrefold was miraculous – a gigantic photo of one of these leonine creatures, standing or splayed out, looking rather fearless (they had to be fearless, they were naked in a room full of photographers and horn dogs, after all.) I gingerly opened the photo of Miss October, or whoever, and gazed back at her, in awe.
Now, for those of you who don’t know, a seven year old boy looking at Playboy for the first time does not approach it quite the way he would a few years later. I will report now that on that occasion, I did not know that there was anything that I might “do” while staring at pictures of naked girls. The only thing I thought to do, was look.
So I looked. And I looked, and looked…
And then my aunt came in.
Uh, uh, um, um, uh, uh…..
I felt a clutch of panic, a spasm in my gut. Uh-oh. Somehow, although I had done nothing “wrong”, I knew that I had still somehow done something wrong.
“Stuart said I could!!!!” I exclaimed. This was true. I am not proud to have thrown him under the bus, but I was desperate.
My aunt paused, with that primly arched look of hers, summoning her thoughts. She stood still in the door.
“It’s alright,” she said finally, turning to leave. “If God made it, it must be beautiful.”
She walked away. I was left alone in the bedroom, with the naked ladies.
But it was the lady who had walked away who still had my attention.
“If God made it, it must be beautiful.”
There was no vocabulary in my head to decode it, but I knew – felt in my skin – that this was a revolutionary statement. Something which seemed sinful – staring at naked women – was suddenly vaulted to a holy plain. Not only was it not wrong to look at these pictures, it was GOOD to look at these pictures!
This cannot have been an easy or comfortable position for a flinty, married, tightly-wound Scotswoman to have adopted in the late 1960s. I do not expect she offered the opinion up too often at church. And in all the years I knew Ina after that, she never once exhibited the slightest of libertine attitudes towards anything. Just that one time.
Was Aunt Ina really that sophisticated? Had this 40ish married lady, living in 1960s Canada, somehow been innoculated with Hugh Hefner’s liberal ethos? I have wondered, in the years since, what inspired my Aunt that day.
Clearly she wasn’t a total prude – her teenager owned a stack of Playboys, after all. But she could not have been that cool about her seven year old nephew eyeballing them. More likely, she was simply being kind.
In a moment when she might have made me feel bad, or guilty, or dirty, she let me off the hook. Not just by ignoring what I was doing, but by declaring it virtuous. She could not have been lovelier about it.
My Aunt was a generous and demanding soul. She could be sharp-tongued and at times, “difficult.” She drove some people crazy. But not me. When I think of her – talking, laughing, scolding, complaining, anything – what I remember was a lesson learned when I was seven years old. A lesson in gentle forgiveness.
It’s alright, you see. Because if God made it…