Performing Memory

My mom has a habit that has become more pronounced over time.  If she doesn't want to do something, she makes herself late.  A strange, passive aggressive stalling tactic. You might think about it casually and consider her disorganized, or worse -- approaching senility.  The dillying.  The dallying.  A whole ritual involving socks.  But I don't think so - because I can see the intention behind it.  A quiet protest.  An insistence on her right to choose.

As I was sitting on the couch yesterday morning, in pjs, drinking tea -- a half an hour before I needed to be somewhere it takes me twenty minutes to drive to -- it occurred to me that I have inherited this particular habit.

When I first picked up Diana Taylor's wonderful book The Archive and the Repertoire, the idea that we perform acts of memory everyday in our speech, our silences, our habits and ways of being in the world  was new to me.  It kind of blew me away.  I think she actually talks about looking in the mirror and seeing her mom looking in the mirror in the introduction.

When I ask, "How's by you?"  I am performing memory.  I never ask anyone who is not in my immediate family this, but my association of the phrase with my mother and her mother and aunties -- five first generation Polish-American women -- comforts me somehow.  I usually ask the cat, though a. he cannot answer and b. how's by him is pretty much the same as it is for me, since we live in the same place. Never you mind that the etymology of the phrase is Yiddish and I have no idea why my mom's family adopted it. Maybe it was my German/Irish grandfather's.  I've adopted it to signify what I want it to -- probably changing the meaning and original purpose of the utterance.  Oh well --- memory is fluid, flexible and open to adjustments.

We all think about food as memory and traditions of other kinds as well.  But isn't it fascinating, and maybe just a little freeing, to consider your nervous ticks, procrastination and avoidance tactics, the armor you grab for whenever you get in an argument, etc.  performances of memory as well?  Doesn't it make you want to understand what attitudes and behaviors are yours and yours alone, and which ones are inheritances?

I've become more inclined to make hospital corners the way my mom taught me, to follow a particular choreography in the kitchen, to find it funny and oddly lovely that I hoard cans of tomato sauce and stockpile condiments just like my dad does.  It is still neurotic, but as a performance of neurotic memory, it makes it a little more OK.


  1. Thanks for a lovely essay. I experience these kinds of memory performances often. I find they offer divergent forms of reclaiming of the habits of family members. Sometimes I am pleased because I am able to do something I admired in someone else but thought I would never be able to do--being able to pick blueberries without constantly eating them reminds me of my great-grandfather, who just worked his way down the row of bushes with amazing discipline. Or I am reminded of my mother and her mother when I find myself raking leaves and picking up sticks in the yard not to neaten the yard, but to be busy and get my mind off other things. At other times I find my own performance of something that irritated me in others reminds me to be more patient and accepting of both that person and myself--such as when I insist on correcting a botched financial transaction, even if the payoff is only a few dollars, or cents. Or I hang on to favorite old, worn clothes, and continue to wear them occasionally, when I would be mortified if I had to go out with a family member wearing such a thing. Memory is performed and lived on a daily basis, through all of these seemingly small acts.

    1. Love the blog title. And the story of the blueberries. Well, also the de-cluttering the yard to de-clutter the mind. I wonder if there is a difference between memories "performed" and those that are simply"lived," and if our awareness of daily activities, reflexive behaviors, etc. as acts of memory matters -- does it change them? I am not sure. Isn't it also interesting to wonder about what is in our DNA and what is just picked up from exposure and micro-culture?

  2. Interesting, finally getting a chance to read this. Great minds, apparently. I've never articulated this thought, but it's something I've thought about when around my mother.


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