Gran Torino, belatedly

Gran Torino opens inside a shadowy church. It’s the kind of place inspired by the soaring gothic cathedrals of Europe. It has vaulted ceilings, niches, an endless symmetry of archways, and stained glass windows depicting scenes of sainthood and martyrdom. Inside, every tentative footstep or stray whisper bounces off the high ceilings and amplifies to a thunder-clap of Catholic guilt.

Well, that’s how it was for me anyhow. I know that church. The one in which Clint Eastwood’s character stands next to his wife’s casket as he scowls at his family.

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Fifteen years ago I was the one sitting on those punishing wooden pews, alongside my family, facing my father’s casket.

I haven’t been back to the church of my baptism, of my youth, of my own departure from my family’s faith since that sweltering August morning in 1995. So it came as a shock to rent this movie, which I knew was made in Detroit, and to see this opening scene, which brought forth a strong physical memory of that day.

This movie robbed me of a good night’s sleep. I didn’t even think I’d like it.

“Mom, did you see ‘Gran Torino’ when it came out?” I blurt over the phone the next day.

“Oh, it was violent.”

Yeah. Do you remember the funeral scene? At your church? Wasn’t that weird?”

I don’t know about weird,” she says.

Well, you know, dad’s funeral. It was eerie to see it replayed in a movie.”

“It wasn’t his funeral.”

“I know, but still …”

“Oh,” she says, her voice trailing off. Conversation over.

Am I just morbid? How could she NOT make the connection?

I felt bad then, digging up a long-buried memory. She goes there every Sunday. A decade and a half of memories have wiped away that morning awash in the blues, purples and reds of  filtered sunlight and propelled by thunderous organ hymns. That morning is the only recent memory I have of the place.

This movie stirred a long-buried pot of memories.

Walt Kowalski reminds me of my grandparents, who often spewed bigoted slurs and who were pulled kicking and screaming from their spotless Detroit homes long after the neighborhood deteriorated.

Kowalski’s disconnect from his children and their offspring also sounded familiar notes in my extended family.

There is a divide between the orderly grid of the old city center, the reach-across-the-driveway-to-knock-on-your -neighbor’s-window closeness, and the labyrinthine subdivisions of suburban McMansions. It goes beyond economics. I understand those neighborhoods. I cannot fathom the sterility of some suburbs.

As the mother of an Asian daughter, it pained me to see such hateful racism in this movie, although I’ve been watching the black/white one play out all my life. I’d almost forgotten the horror of what happened to  Vincent Chin. It saddened me at the time but not in the way it would today. I look into almond-shaped eyes and see family.

As a Detroiter who has dreamed of leaving this Rustbelt Utopia for years, Gran Torino made me realize that no matter where I bury new roots, I’ll have the grit of Detroit in my soul. No matter how free thinking I think I am, how open-minded, how much of a tabula rasa I think I can create for myself, after 45 years, some things are engrained.

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Do you ever wonder?


Why do we subject our pets to such humiliations?

Sometimes I wonder:

— Am I the only person who has one set of behaviors for public and another for behind closed doors?  The other day I was eating while reading a magazine. I took a moment to come up for air.  Crumbs were scattered all over the table and floor. I probably was chewing with my mouth open and paying no mind to my portion sizes. I was so lost in the sensory fulfilment of reading and eating that I lost all self-consciousness.

I though about how I am in restaurants: ordering very small portions, taking small bites, careful not to edge food too close to the side of the plate lest it spill onto the tablecloth or make rude noises while chewing. Which is the real me? Why such a big difference? You, too?

— Why I feel the need to fill in the gaps about people I barely know. Like the lady who sits in her big chair every night in front of the big screen TV.  She doesn’t close the curtains on her big picture window. Her house is on a corner where there is a long traffic light. Several times a week I’m sitting at this light and I always look in this window to see the lady parked in her chair within spitting distance of this big TV. No matter the time or day, she’s there.

At first I thought she  was lonely and bored. Then I started thinking she was just plain lazy. I envisioned a big TV tray with fatty foods, a sink piled high with crusty dishes, the smell of burnt food thick in the air.

Then, one day last summer, on a stroll along her street, I encountered her on the sidewalk and I felt my face flush with shame. She was obviously a stroke victim. She walked in slow, measured stops using a walker. One side of her face was paralyzed. Shortly thereafter I read a memoir in which the author tells of his mother’s agonizing crawl toward death from complications of Huntington’s disease.  His mother spent her final days strapped to a hospital bed in an upright position in front of a television set. It was, he said, all she had left in life.

— If I lived 100 years in the past or in the future, would I still be me — including all my quirks, tics and odd little phobias? Does historical context define character? Does enduring a war, a famine, a Holocaust or great personal tragedy give you depth, strength and wisdom that you wouldn’t have if you lived the life of a pampered royal? Do you ever wonder if you were given a do-over of your life, if you made different choices, would you end up different or the same?

I do.