How buying a handbag led to a renewed bond with my grandmother
This first-person chronicle is written by Shimshon Obadia, an interdisciplinary artist and writer who lives and works on the unceded territory of the Syilx Okanagan people in Kelowna, BC. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see frequently asked questions.
When I was six, I stole a purse. It was a frilly light pink purse with a metal ball clasp, and it was just big enough to hold my miniature diary. No one told me I couldn’t have it, it wasn’t even expensive — my parents and I were in a thrift store. I stole it because I didn’t know how else to ask for it.
I didn’t think someone like me – someone who was assigned male at birth – was even allowed to want a purse. But there it was, frilly and pink and on the “wrong” side of the toy aisle, calling my name, stirring something I couldn’t name that felt so right. So I turned back to my assigned side, grabbed a big yellow plastic toy boat that opened at the top, pushed the purse in there, and asked my mom for the boat at the place.
I have never carried the handbag anywhere. I was so ashamed of how I got it that I thought just wearing it might get me called a thief – or worse. Instead, I kept the handbag in my closet, with a lot of me, for a very long time.
In search of the perfect bag
As a transgender person, discovering my identity has been somewhat of a process of discovery; not only to understand why the gender assigned to me at birth does not correspond to who I am, but also to learn to embody the gender that I really am. For me, a big part of that was understanding that I am non-binary – a gender that is neither male nor female. And finally, after a lot of hard work and self-discovery, I chose to live as a more authentic version of myself.
However, there was one missing piece of me still buried deep in my closet: my ill-gotten thrift store purse. I’d started lugging around a large felted brown men’s satchel, but it never quite felt right. For one, the satchel was a holdover from the many bags I’ve had over the years that looked like a purse or next to a purse, but never what I really wanted in a bag. Somehow a purse – a real effeminate, evening bag, wallet or purse clutch – had become so much more of a line to cross than anything else. in my gender journey so far. No matter what I bought, none of the bags I tried to use ever felt right.
What started as a search for the perfect handbag led to the realization that I was looking for so much more. What I wanted was to be found, held and embraced in a line connecting my past to my present; or a collection, if you will… like, well, a handbag.
Although my grandmother was probably the closest person to me growing up, I hadn’t visited her in Toronto for almost half a decade.
My grandmother’s name is Dahlia Obadia. I call her my mom Dahlia, a grandparent title of her own design. Originally from Morocco, she brought traditional belly dancing from her home to Canada as a professional dancer, eventually hosting her own studio. Her personality is reflected in everything from her dance-inspired outfits to her choice of family title and, of course, her bags. Hand-sewn, wide woven natural fibers and a few sequins for flash are his usual picks – usually from stalls at craft markets rather than box stores or shopping malls. And there’s usually a crystal or two in at least one of her purses.
When I first went out with my grandma, I tried to explain things over the phone because she doesn’t really do Zoom. But with technological and physical distance between us, I was never sure what exactly was going on. It only made it easier to keep things frozen as they were.
I was also worried about his reaction. I did not doubt my grandmother’s love for me. I was lucky enough to have a rather positive coming out experience in Kelowna. However, I had also dealt with an unpleasant amount of transphobia. Some of these strangers looked at me like I was something that needed fixing. These strangers scared me that talking to him might make our relationship worse.
But I also wanted her to know the person she helped me become. I wanted to have a relationship where I could be myself again with her. So I took a trip to Toronto.
After the big family dinners at my grandparents, my grandmother has something of a ritual that she would do almost every time without fail. She would take the women in the family to her room and encourage them to shop in her wardrobe. As a dancer, she amassed an incredible wardrobe, and shopping habits haven’t slowed down much with age. She’s always had an exuberant flair for what she wears and by the time dessert arrives and the Moroccan mint tea is just starting to cool, my mom Dahlia has usually figured out exactly what every woman’s wardrobe is. of the table could be improved with it own.
As I was clearing the table the first night I visited her, my grandmother slipped into her room. When she came out, she had a beautiful green bag in her hand. All she had to do was say, “Shimshon, I have something that I think you’ll like. And suddenly I found myself fighting back tears as she invited me to take a look at a few other things from her wardrobe that she thought were perfect for mine. She handed me the handbag, stating that it went perfectly with the light pink dress I was wearing. Then she got to work pulling out item after item from her closet to see which of her favorites would become mine.
This green purse is a constant reminder that I have a place to hold in my family’s maternal line, that my trans-feminine identity is accepted and defended in its non-binary trans wholeness.
The handbag that adapts to the person
So is this the end? Is this the perfect handbag?
I wonder if the purse I find now is just the purse for me now? Like with how I express my non-binary trans gender. As I get older, my tastes may change again. When I think about it this way, I’m really, really excited to see what bags will be added to my collection in the years to come. For me, gender is a journey after all, and finding a handbag is no exception. One thing I do know for sure though: I never have to steal a handbag in shame again, or hide it in my closet again, because I know I’m loved for who I am.
Shimshon Obadia (pronouns: they/they) is an interdisciplinary artist, writer and community activist. Their work uses the practice of self-advocacy and soft activism to explore intersectionality as a queer, trans, non-binary, neurodiverse, and mixed-race person. Obadia hosts the Inspired Word Café Society’s titular podcast and co-hosts public programs for the Okanagan Gender Identity Group.
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