Thursday, June 24, 2010

Book #12: My Grandmother, the Femme Fatale

My father and I were reading books together as part of our effort to remain on speaking terms, despite the fact that we were both having breakdowns (his because my grandmother was dying, mine due to my shrinking career prospects). Daddy was so edgy that I was reminded of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. We would get around to reading the novel, but first why not start with the film?

Humphrey Bogart plays Sam Spade to a T - very cool and wolfish. Again, I was reminded of my old man.

In the darkness of the basement, reality faded away and the exaggerated world of the film took over. The story is deceptively simple. A beautiful blond who goes by the name Miss Wunderly arrives on Spade's doorstep, claiming that her sister has absconded with a thug named Floyd Thursby. When Spade's partner tails Thursby, both men end up dead. It turns out that Miss Wunderly's real name is Brigid O'Shaughnessy - or so she claims. At first, it isn't clear what she wants from Spade, beyond a little assurance that he can shield her from police interrogation. But as she paces around her hotel room in a slinky striped robe - wringing her hands, her face vacant as a porcelain bowl - he's on to her duplicitousness and feminine wiles. The shadows of the Venetian blinds play over her body and you just know she can't be trusted. It's as though she's dead inside, imprisoned within her own dark, desperate mood.

There was something uncomfortably familiar about her premeditated gestures and cries. And then it hit me - she reminded me of my grandmother. My grandmother, the femme fatale.

My earliest memories of Granny are of the period when her beauty was beginning to fade, but even so, she remained a lovely woman - an ex-beauty queen - and everyone assumed she looked much too young to be anyone other than my mother. This was awkward for me, but she loved it, giggling histrionically and leaning forward on the edge of her chair.

"My father was the one who enrolled me in beauty pageants," she once told me. "He taught me to walk lightly on stage. Women in Japan walk lightly like they're floating on air." She reminisced about how the year she was seventeen, her parents had sent her back to Toyama in hopes that the matchmaker would find a rich husband. Three men had proposed.

But if this was so, why had she returned to Canada shortly before the war? Her cryptic relationship to Japan veiled her in mystery and unknown origins, both drawing me in and keeping me at bay.

And now she was dying. Her skin still appeared smooth as she lay in bed, but her arms were twitching like she was possessed, and her leg would be amputated any day.

Photo from: here


Tyrie said...

It's always interesting when one reaches the age that family curiosities/mysteries become things of intrigue. When my nana died, I was 17 and felt that I had a pretty firm grasp on her history because she had always been so frank with me about it. However, years later, in conversations with my mother, I learned things that I had never known - big things.

I was frustrated because my family has so many secrets. The problem is, no one is sure who knows what, and so I learn things that my immediates - mother, father, grandparents - apparently never intended for me to know. I guess they have their reasons, but it's frustrating nonetheless.

Enjoying the blog.

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Tyrie, I couldn't agree more. I, too, have been caught in that awkward moment at family gatherings when I want to ask my relatives probing questions about the past, but it's difficult to gage their differing comfort levels.

I'm all for getting things out in the open - what passes as the "perfectly normal, perfectly happy" family, I find, often masks a good deal of cheery repression - but not everyone agrees.

I guess the important thing, for me at least, is to tell my own story reconstructing and exploring family dynamics as best I can.

Thanks for sharing your story!

L lost in KY said...

I think we are now at a place in time where more and more people belive in comming clean. It's cathartic. In generations past this was not the case...families hid what they thought would bring them shame, in all cultures however different they are.


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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.