I’m writing right now, it’s late, I don’t have time for a full post explaining why Avatar: Legend of Korra is balls-out awesome, plus and also we’re only two episodes in, and I’d love to have a bit more plot-arc under my belt before I attempt such blogging.
The second Katara came on screen in episode one? I started crying – a pattern which repeated itself through each of her appearances. And it’s not like I’m someone who never cries at stories or shows or movies, because IMAGINARY CHARACTERS GET ALL MY FEELS, but there was a weight, an enormous sense of complexity to the feelings just a glimpse of Katara provoked in me – a reaction I hadn’t expected, and which, if I had, I would have assumed could be brought on just as handily by all the gifs and screenshots I’ve been seeing since the first ep leaked (which it wasn’t).
And the difference wasn’t in hearing her talk (though that was part of it) or watching her interact with Korra and Tenzin and her grandchildren (though that was part of it, too) or even seeing her crop up in narrative context rather than abstractly on tumblr (though that strikes nearer the mark).
It was being hit – viscerally, powerfully – by the sense of her as a person, as someone whose youth and formative years I knew by heart, who had lived through the long, rich narrative of her own adventures and survived to become a woman, a waterbending master, a mentor, a mother, a grandmother and a widow, and yet who was giving way gracefully to the new generation: a human grace note in someone else’s story. And even though Korra knew who Katara was and understood the significance of the role she’d played in shaping her world, it was somehow me, the invisible viewer, who had the greater claim on her kinship; because for me – for us – the years of her life had passed in a blink, and in her smile and humour we saw the echoes and strength of a girl that Korra could never know.
And it brought me to tears, because this is the thing that stories do that the real world never can: they show us first-hand the passage of generations, how young men and women grow old and change, and in so doing remind us of all the things in history we can never truly see. Because even though I know my grandmother is an extraordinary woman – that she defied her Irish Catholic family to marry my English Protestant grandfather; that when her husband turned anti-Japanese after the deaths of his friends in WWII, she defied his hurt and taught English to Japanese refugees; that she worked as a gemologist, cutting and polishing precious stones, and learned to paint, and raised two children, and wept when her daughter was able to attain the university education she could never have, and who just before my wedding became a widow – I cannot, not matter how great my empathy, reach into the past and watch the days of her youth unfold. I can glimpse it in photographs; I can search for it in her stories; I can imagine it through her actions.
But I cannot live it the way I can live the fictional growth of a fictional girl who is reaching the end of her beautiful, fictional life. And so I cry, because just for a moment – when I look at age and remember youth – I can almost touch the wealth and the depth of my grandmother’s hidden life.
She turns ninety this month; she was born in 1922. Not long ago, I called and spoke to her on the phone, and when the question of her age came up, she laughed – baffled, wistful, wry – and said, ‘It sounds so old! But I don’t feel any different.’
Ninety years old. And inside her, a girl of five, a girl of fifteen – an endless parade of every girl and every woman she’s ever been. I love my grandmother dearly, and yet I will never know her youth as fully as I know Katara’s, because that’s what stories do: they make magic and turn our hearts inside out, so that just for an instant, reality bends and lets us glimpse what would otherwise vanish forever.