Mom, Marlene Dietrich, and a Night of Bondage

I think of my mother at some of the strangest times. One of those was a few years back in a Berlin leather club watching people getting tied up. Now, let me explain, before you jump to some strange conclusions.

I was in Berlin writing about gay travel. Not being shy like many American hosts about showing off the dark side of their cities, the Germans dignitaries escorted me to some of the leather bars Berlin is famous for. In fact it’s hard to find a gay place there that isn’t leather oriented.

But we also went to the Film Museum in Potsdammer Platz, the recently built up former no-man’s land that divided the two Berlins until the fall of the Wall. My favorite part of this museum was the material on Germany’s most famous actress—Marlene Dietrich. From the pictures, to the shoes, to the clothes, it was a Dietrich fan’s dream.

But the reason why German bondage and Marlene Dietrich reminded me of my mother was because she has breast cancer. Now a story connecting Marlene Dietrich, German bondage, and my mother’s breast cancer probably requires even more background explanation.

My mother is of German heritage, and when I was a child, she would make me watch Marlene Dietrich movies. She even sang Dietrich’s songs as a sort of lullaby. The film star was her idol because having been born at the height of Dietrich’s fame, she was named after her. (She also made me watch Joan Crawford and Bette Davis movies too, but that is another story.)

My mother still loves old movies, but since her breast cancer diagnosis more than seven years ago, she has too many doctor appointments to take them in at leisure. One of her biggest problems with her breast cancer though is due to having had a lymphadectomy. This procedure removes the lymph glands and as much cancerous material from the breast area as possible, reducing the need for chemotherapy. But it comes with complications—lymphedema—a swelling in the arms where the glands were removed. There is no cure, but the therapeutic treatment to reduce the swelling is to bind the arm as tightly as possible when going to bed in a special and rather scary looking device, and that’s where this story leads me back to Germany.

I am in Europe almost more often then I am at my parents’ home in New Jersey, even if they are only an hour from my Manhattan apartment. But when I do visit, I sit with my mother during a ritual she performs late at night in the dark. She gets out this huge black contraption, full of buckles, snaps, and belts, along with an assortment of other binding gear, and begins to slowly put it all on. It’s a very disciplined, time-consuming procedure, which she follows with complete precision. To top it all off, the contraption even proudly bears the label—“Made in Germany.”

As I watch this, I tell my mother how well she would do in a bondage club tying up people and maybe making a living off of it, how popular bondage is in Germany, and that her heritage makes her perfect for it. Bondage is big even in suburbia, as some of the personals in the Jersey newspapers and online sites can attest. I joke with my mother that she should put an ad out looking for someone to help tie her arm up. Some people might actually pay her for the privilege, and she could be picky about who she gets—Who knows, maybe even some young hunky young blonds for a real Berlin feel?

She laughs with me, but after awhile, she tells me to be quiet before my father hears. When I am home, this silly conversation becomes part of her lymphedema ritual. Then, like she did to me as a child, I start singing Marlene Dietrich songs.

I’m not trying to make light of my mother’s breast cancer or lymphedema. My mother has no choice but to perform this ritual every night, but even so, she might as well have a laugh at it. Her surgery, check-ups, and arm-binding are life-saving, but more important for her is her ability to keep smiling and keep laughing. It’s better medicine than the doctors can give her.

I can’t make my mother’s lymphedema go away, but I can make her enjoy life a little more. It’s gotten to the point that when I am home, she can’t bring out the binding material now without laughing.

And that’s before I’ve even done my Dietrich imitation.

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