For perverse and obscure reasons, I’ve decided to share the Demented Tutu photograph referenced in the post below. Mainly because it brought to the surface a lot of strange, childhood memories for me that I hadn’t thought about in awhile. Such as the fact that all my childhood pictures were taken on my parents’ dining room table for mysterious reasons still somewhat unbeknownst to me. I remember the photo shoots as being lengthy, and tedious, and that there was lots of poking and prodding and primping involved — my father taking roll after roll of film. My mother choreographed these photo sessions with the grim, relentless determination of a drill sergeant. They frequently involved multiple costume changes — baton twirler, sailor, cowboy . . . and the awkward assumption of psychotically frenetic and perky poses that I now suspect she culled from vintage 1950′s children’s sweater pattern booklets from companies such as Clark, Spinnerin, and Bernat. Booklets which featured well-groomed, well-fed, well-mannered, dimpled, doe-eyed, wholesome white children, and which I think my mother consulted heavily, along with a book in Japanese she owned called The American Way of Housekeeping, as various sorts of guidebooks for assimilation.
I remember the days surrounding the taking of this picture very well. It was my first ballet recital, and I was about five years old. Having taken a rather lackadaisical and slacker-esque approach to my ballet studies, my mother was horrified to come to parents’ day at the ballet studio to find that I was dreamily futzing around in the back row. Not only that, we were rehearsing our dance with batons, which would be replaced with little parasols come dress rehearsal, and due to some simmering aggressions between myself and my two ballet carpool companions, a bit of a melee broke out amongst the three of us in which, in the middle of the dance, we ended up viciously trying to bash each others’ brains out with our batons.
Outraged, my mother put me on a strict rehearsal regimen once we were home, in which she took it upon herself to singlehandedly promote me from Back-Row Ballet Slackerdom to Front-and-Center Ballet Stardom. There was a lot of yelling and crying involved.
These types of personal improvement projects, in which my mother was the Improver and I was the Improvee, however, were not altogether foreign to me. My mother was big on coaching. Before taking me to any sort of party, my mother would drill me for hours beforehand, asking me potential questions to which I was expected to deliver back the answers she had given me — sometimes even with cocquettish accompanying physical gestures she had devised. (“What does your father do?” “My father’s an important Arthur!” (It was supposed to be “author,” but at the time, with her Japanese accent, I honestly though my mother was saying “Arthur,” which was confusing, since Arthur wasn’t my father’s name.))
On the day of the ballet recital, which is the day I believe the Demented Tutu photograph was taken, I was in Deep Shit. I remember my mother kept putting these pink plastic curlers — one on each side — in my hair, secured with a green blob of Dippity Do. I somehow managed to lose the curlers on two separate occasions . . . once by accident, and once under peer pressure at the across-the-street neighbor girl’s house, who talked me into removing the curlers and putting on some of her mother’s make-up. As a result, my mother had to wash my hair and re-Dippity Do it twice, and she wasn’t happy about it, either. Due to her rigorous at-home rehearsal sessions, I had been promoted to front and center for the ballet recital, but clearly I was a Loose Cannon, and could not necessarily be relied upon to not fuck things up on the Big Night.
So here I am, on my parents’ dining room table, in the Dying Swan Pose — hands arranged by my mother in what looks to me like a dead-on rendition of the heavy metal, devil horn’s up signs, my bolo-head haircut modified by two cement-like Dippity Do curls lacquered to each side of my head.
Yes, I remember these photo sessions as being somewhat tense — my mother cranky and critical, me feeling bored, skulky, and unhappy. But perhaps, for my mother, there was more at stake than the mere capturing of snapshots. In retrospect, my mother was clearly fashioning and manufacturing images — images clearly intended to represent her own Americanness, or perhaps more importantly to her, my Americanness . . . images that proved that we fit in, that we were like any typical 1950′s family (except that this was actually the early 1970′s), that we were, indeed, assimilated. It seems troubling and sad that this had to be proved at all to start with, but even more so in that my mother had to prove this on two continents . . . for these were the pictures that she sent to her father, my Japanese grandfather, as validation for the life she had chosen, with a “Yankee,” no less, in America.
What seems somewhat apparent, at least to me, as I think about all of these photographs, is the underlying sense of strain . . . the feeling that making these images had been terribly hard work, that they were a product of trying too hard, and that the deliberation that went behind all the costuming, choreographing and posing, rather than capturing the 1950′s wholesome Americana my mother had been striving for, instead revealed the oddities and occasionally destructive eccentricities of our household.
And having been a child who frequently felt constricted by the various masks that my mother insisted I wear, I’m thankful that I can now, as an adult, glimpse the subtext of these oddities and eccentricities behind these images. They let me know that maybe I was still really there all along, after all.
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