Relearning How to Perform Family

Relearning how to perform family. Photo of a pillow stitched with image of a familyNot long after my mother died, my sister got a call from the independent living facility where my mother had been living. The caller—a friend of my mother’s who also lived there—had spotted a pillow on a side table in one of the dining rooms. She recognized it instantly as my mother’s.

My sister sent me a photo of the pillow. Sewn onto its mustard-yellow background was a tableau of my family: my father, smoking a cigarette and holding a newspaper; my mother clad in a tennis dress; and four children ranging in age from roughly 9-15, each with a signature hobby stitched alongside them: a Sherlock Holmes book for one, a catcher’s mitt for another. Even our dog, Hector, an honorary fifth sibling, was present.

My mother had commissioned the pillow from a crafty neighbor back in the mid-1970s. Despite the grime that had accumulated over the years — the bright, white tennis dress now more of a Spanish grey — the pillow proffered a portrait of family unity. It was but one of many instantiations of how we performed family throughout my mother’s lifetime. When she died at the age of 89 in 2020, I realized that we did not know how to carry on this performance without her.

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