How shopping for a purse led to a renewed bond with my grandmother
'Mummy Dahlia' embraced my trans-feminine identity through our shared passion for fashion
This First Person column 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, B.C. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
When I was six, I stole a purse. It was a light, pink frilly coin purse with a metal ball clasp, and it was just big enough to hold my miniature diary. Nobody told me I couldn't have it, it wasn't even expensive — my parents and I were at 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 that is — was even allowed to want a purse. But there it was, frilly and pink and on the "wrong" side of the toy aisle, calling to me, stirring up 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 up at the top, shoved the purse in there, and asked my mom for the boat instead.
I never wore the purse out anywhere. I was so ashamed of how I'd gotten it that I thought just wearing it might get me labelled a thief — or worse. Instead, I kept the purse in my closet, along with a lot of the rest of me, for a very long time.
Seeking the perfect purse
As a transgender person, figuring out my identity has been something of a process of discovery; not only to figure out why the gender I was assigned at birth doesn't fit who I am, but also to learn how to embody the gender I actually am. For me, a large part of that was figuring out I'm non-binary — a gender that's not male or female. And eventually, after a lot of hard work and self-discovery, I chose to live as a more authentic version of myself.
However, there was a missing piece of me still buried deep in my closet: my ill-gotten thrift shop purse. I'd started carrying around a big brown felted men's satchel, but it never felt quite right. For one, the satchel was a holdover of the many bags I've had over the years that were purse-like or purse-adjacent, but never what I really wanted in a bag. Somehow a purse — an actual effeminate, evening bag, pocketbook, or wallet clutch of a purse — had become so much more of a line to cross than anything else in my gender journey thus far. No matter what I bought, none of the bags I tried using ever felt right.
Lost and found
What started off as a search for the perfect purse led to the realization that I was looking for so much more. What I wanted was to be found, held and embraced in a lineage connecting my past to my present; or a collection, if you will... like, well, a purse.
Although my grandmother was probably the person closest 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 Mummy Dahlia, a grandparent title of her own design. Originally from Morocco, she brought the traditional belly dancing of 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 familial title —and, naturally, her bags. Hand stitched, woven broad natural fibres and a few sequins for flash are her usual picks — typically out of craft market stalls 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 came out to my grandmother, I tried explaining things over the phone because she doesn't really do Zoom all that much. But with a technological and physical distance between us, I was never sure what exactly was getting through. That only made it easier to keep things frozen the way they were.
I also worried how she might react. I didn't doubt my grandmother's love for me. I've been lucky enough to have had a mostly positive coming out experience in Kelowna. However, I had also faced an unpleasant amount of transphobia. Some of these strangers looked at me as though I was something needing to be fixed. These strangers made me afraid that coming out to her might change our relationship for the worse.
But I also wanted her to know the person she helped me grow into. I wanted to have a relationship where I could be my whole self with her again. So I made a trip to Toronto.
After big family dinners at my grandparents' place, my grandmother has something of a ritual she would do almost every time without fail. She'd take the women of the family into her bedroom and encourage them to shop her closet. As a dancer, she accumulated an incredible wardrobe and the shopping habits haven't slowed much with age. She's always had an exuberant flair for what she wears and by the time dessert comes around and the Moroccan mint tea is just starting to cool, my Mummy Dahlia has usually figured out exactly what every woman at the table's wardrobe could be improved with out of her own.
As I was clearing the table on the first night I visited her, my grandmother slipped into her bedroom. When she emerged, she had a beautiful green bag in hand. She only had to say, "Shimshon, I have something I think you will like." And suddenly I found myself fighting back tears as she invited me to take a look at a few more things from her wardrobe that she thought would be just right for my own. She put the purse on me, declaring it a perfect match for the light pink dress I was wearing. Then she got to work taking out item after item from her closet to see which of her favourites would become mine.
This green purse is a constant reminder that I have a place to be held in my family's maternal line, that my trans-feminine identity is accepted and upheld in its trans non-binary entirety.
The purse to fit the person
So, is this the end? Is this the perfect purse?
I wonder if the purse I find now is just the purse for me now? Like with the way I express my trans non-binary gender. As I get older, maybe my tastes will change again. When I think of it that way, I'm actually really excited to see what bags get added to my collection in the years to come. For me, gender is a journey after all, and finding a purse is no exception. One thing I do know for certain though: I don't ever have to steal a purse in shame, nor hide it away in my closet again, because I know I'm loved for exactly who I am.
Shimshon Obadia (pronouns: they/them) 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 titular podcast of Inspired Word Café Society and co-facilitated public programs for the Okanagan Gender Identity Group.
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