OUT OF THE PAST
Picture this. Eight people around our mahogany dining table, old friends of my parents’, with my mother and I at the head of each end.
The guests are resplendent in formal wear; table laden with platters of food ranging from tandoori chicken fresh off the outdoor grill, goat curry, dahl, rice, vegetable dishes, raita and puffy puris. In a thinking-outside-the-box spell, I’ve used one of my mom’s old saris as a tablecloth. The rich royal blue silk, flecked with hundreds of gold bindis, introduces a casual elegance to the room that surpasses even my expectations. Tea candles in crystal goblets line the middle of the rectangular table, their golden almond-shaped flames creating an intimate ambiance.
As wine is imbibed, food is consumed and I’ve heralded mom with a ‘compliments to the chef’ toast (a ritual I’ve enacted for every dinner party she and I have hosted since my father passed away), stories begin unfolding about Fiji, about politics, about life in a foreign country,* and about who is where now. The usual.
I’m cozy at my end, flanked by Noel, an ex-Colonial Sugar Refinery executive and Fay Deoki who, remarkably, used to be my math teacher at Suva Grammar.Then, quite suddenly, Titus, Fay’s husband (we have two Fays tonight; Noel’s wife is also a Fay), begins saying, singing really, Oh, Gigi!, long and drawn out in a French accent. I begin to giggle. From his position in the middle, Titus looks over at me, a beam on his round jovial face making it look even rounder.
You know, says Titus, when I met you last year, all those memories about Gigi came rushing back. I hadn’t thought about that movie for years. Leslie Caron, so young, so innocent. And the song, the song, he exclaims. I remember the song, I say to him, and then address the table, Dad had a record of the movie. And he would play Gigi over and over again, and each time the part Oh, Gigi would come on, he would really ham it up, accompanying it with great gusto, tilted head and moony eyes directed towards me, while I, in my mid-teens, awkward and self-conscious, would cringe, palms covering my ears, imploring, Stop it, daddy, stop!
My father’s friends, and my mother, chuckle. But my protestations spurred him on even more, I say, my teenage discomfort delighting him. Everyone laughs.
Oh, but I can just imagine why, as he watched you grow, says Titus, and in a rich baritone begins to sing. He could really sing, this Titus, and we’re all totally captivated. Noel leans towards me and whispers, He could be on stage. I know, I say, we’re very privileged with this private performance.
When Titus is finished, he looks across at me and beams again. Oh, Gigi, he croons, and I clap my hands over my ears and mockingly yelp, Stop! Stop it!
Other conversations rise and ebb and the evening progresses, but Titus’ words remain with me. I had never really paid much attention to the lyrics to Gigi, back then nor in the intervening years, but now, after what Titus had said about my father, the song and me, I want to know what those words are.
So the next day, after my mom and I have accomplished the mammoth task of hand-washing all the real gold-rimmed plates and dishes and glasses, and packed away the leftovers, folded the sari, and I’d reset my workstation on the dining table, I log onto the internet.
It is with a funny feeling in my heart that I see again, after so many years, the movie poster that had been the record cover of Gigi, the one we had, the one my dad loved to play. I suddenly feel overwhelmed by an ache of love for my father, a nostalgia for my lost paradise of a country and its glorious past, and the strangeness of life and our time and relationships on this earth.
I never saw the movie Gigi, but I recall that Leslie Caron was Gigi, and Louis Jordan and Maurice Chevalier were in it. What I didn’t know, and now discover, is that Gigi, based on Colette’s 1944 novella of the same name, is one of the most honored movies of all time, garnering nine Oscars and winning every category in which it was nominated.
I click onto YouTube next. I can’t locate the original movie soundtrack – I’m in too much of a hurry now, I guess – and the closest I come is Dean Martin’s version. And then I find it – hoorah!
I listen closely to the lyrics, and lines like these find their mark:
Why you’ve been growing up before my very eyes
You’re not at all that funny awkward little girl I knew
Overnight there’s been a breathless change in you …
Oh Gigi, have I been standing up too close or back too far
When did your sparkle turn to fire …
Oh, what miracle has made you the way you are …
and what Titus had been getting at last night begins to make fresh sense to me. A wave of understanding, what he, my father, was seeing and feeling washes over me, and the tears come spilling through. And I miss him and miss him and miss him.
But most of the time I’m okay. Really.
.. .. ..
* migrating from paradise
Rushing like thin windswept rain
away from isolation, discrimination, a weak constitution,
away from contorted thoughts,
from desperation, fury,
from the soft worn fabric of old friendships
to a flaring hope
that the forces of fate
will be weakened by the hardness of a new country.
Canadians, Americans, New Zealanders, Australians now,
and yet, resembling each other even more deeply
in their common histories of fled-from pain.
– No Crying Aloud by Gigi Jaatinen