two birds, flowers, and death

A while ago, my grandma and I were chatting in the living room after dinner. I was knitting, and she was having tea. We were talking about marriage, and she said it's always the little things that break marriages up.

"What did Grandpa do? What were the little things?"
"Ohh..." she thought. "He said no flowers."
"No flowers?"
"Yeah, nothing could be flowers. Like the pillowcases? Or the curtains, he didn't want flowers."
"And nothing on the wall. I couldn't hang anything on the wall."
She pointed around, "See that? I used to have it sitting there, remember? And then Adrianne put it up. And that, Bear gave it to him, so he put it up. And that was his mother's."
I turned to look at the last hanging. "This was Blue Grandma's?"
"Yeah. It's silk."

Hanging in our living room between the blue couch and the shelf where I used to put my pop-up books is a rather ornate and embroidered work of two birds. Silk, apparently, which explains its shine. The colours are pretty, but they're those sort of non-committal in-between colours: orangey pinks, bluey greens, browney greys. Except the birds are black and white and powerful. The birds are of the same kind. Cranes, maybe?

Hours earlier, she had introduced me to Blue Grandma's best friend:  Mrs. Higo.  There was a photo of Mrs. Higo in The Bulletin/Geppo.

"I remember her, Mrs. Higo."
Mrs. Higo smiled back at us.
"Yeah. They were best friends, Mrs. Higo and Ian's mother."
"She owned the brothel on Powell Street."
"So that's why we think... you know..."

That my great grandma was a sex worker.

I've spent most of my life knowing pretty much nothing about my great grandma. Then last year, someone asked me if I was Shanghai K's great granddaughter, which it turns out I am. But yeah, years ago, while the other issei ladies would putter around and participate in seniors' activities and what have you, my great grandmother would sit in the corner wearing her overapplied make-up and smoke in poker-faced silence.

I think I have more of a problem with overapplied make-up and smoking than I do with sex work, but a couple weeks ago at work, I did have a problem related to sex work. A man stumbled into the studio and walked right up to my desk. He stood there looking at me, looking around, and vaguely smelling of alcohol. My co-worker and the studio intern were there too, and so we all sat in watchful silence as this seemingly reactive and/or unstable man stood in our space (the studio is a women's space). He slowly picked up one of our backpacks.
"That's my backpack..." (from behind him, which he didn't seem to hear).
As slowly as he picked it up, I took it back. "I'm going to have to ask you to put that down."
"Because it's not yours. It doesn't belong to you."
He looked around, eyed my stuff, stumbled forward, behind my desk.
"I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
"Because of the way you're looking at and picking up stuff that doesn't belong to you."
"Oh... Okay."
He stumbled back the way he came, stopped in his tracks: "You're a whore, you know that?"
"No, but you do have to leave."
More stumbling, and then in the doorway, I was a whore again, and then a slut, and then he left.

Our studio is supposed to be a safe space for women, and even particularly women who are sex workers, women who have done sex work in the past, or other women who have experienced exploitation and for-real vulnerability. All women are welcome, but in creating a safe space, the studio has in mind particularly those women who might be especially harmed by that man's behaviour and language. So it sucked that he did that. And it sucks that he probably has a heap of his own problems with which he seems to need some help. But it also sucks that we shame sex work. Whether it's a family avoiding telling a younger family member that sex work was probably the reality of life for her great grandmother or a man drunkenly throwing out whore and slut like little ninja stars, shaming sex work sucks.

My grandma continued.
"But then... you know, when he was - you know, at the end... I said, Look, Dad!" and she pointed. (They heard "Mom" and "Dad" so much from their kids that those just became their names, even for each other).
I looked. At the end of the blue couch, there was a pillow covered in flowers.
She gripped her tea, folded over the cuff of her sweatshirt. "He mellowed a lot at the end, really..."
"He was brave, really. He just accepted it."