I had been visiting my parents when the chance to speak with Margie Fischer about her production, The Dead Ones, came up, so felt very relevant discussing the production, which is based around the objects left behind when her parents died and she found herself in charge of clearing out their house.
Were I to die, I would worry that a lot of the possessions, notes and mementos I’ve left behind might be imbued with a level of significance that was entirely absent during my actual life. Were a family member to die – God forbid – I would be just as worried that by sorting through their possessions I might be creating someone anew rather than rediscovering the deceased as they were.
“Well, for one thing these people were my family,” she explains, “So there’s a closeness, an intimacy I already had. I’d also talked to my mother about sorting them. We were a family that talked about things a lot. So I wasn’t reading any significance into things; they were already significant. I don’t know if you’ve had the experience, but when people you know have died and you’re sorting through their things, what you read into them is what they are. That’s what I got so interested in. They don’t speak for themselves, they’re just inanimate objects. The only meaning they have is the meaning you put onto them. That’s what’s so interesting.”
I ask Margie if these objects were selected because they already had some level of significance. She surprises me by instead asking if my parents are alive. Having just left my parents to enjoy lunch while we had this conversation, I found myself oddly uncomfortable answering her. There is no clear reason for my discomfort, and I wonder if a person’s fear of their parent’s death is so profound that we shy away from the topic almost by instinct.
“When you walk into your parent’s house,” she tells me, “you’ll see the objects that are in their lives. The fry pan, the pots, the towels. They’re objects that you relate to. You don’t think about it, but you’re relating to them. When they die, you’ll be disposing of them, and those objects will become your responsibility. Because everyone else was dead, I felt the weight of responsibility of disposing of those objects properly. I know some people who walk into their parents house, they’ll hire a skip, dump everything into it, and that’s it. I’m not that sort of person. These objects were valuable because they were what was left. Handkerchiefs, and underpants, things that you don’t touch of your parents. Things you don’t touch while they’re alive, you only ever touch in death.”
I find the notion of responsibility interesting. To whom, after all, are we responsible? To the memory of our dead? To ourselves? Given the presence of the Holocaust in Margie’s family, I wonder if there is a sense of historicism to her production; that they are in some sense kept alive through the sharing of memory.
“I think there’s something about being a person who’s left,” she says slowly, “the last one standing, where if you’re part of an oral tradition, of handing down stories, there’s a responsibility to pass them on. Because I was going to sell the house I started taking pictures of the objects, where they lived, and then I took pictures of the rooms as they were emptying, and then again when they were completely empty. I didn’t do any of that for a purpose, there was no plan, I just knew I had to do it. Then I started to think, this is bound to be an experience that lots of people have. And it’s true; most people will have to clear out their parent’s house. You have to make decisions about what you keep and what you throw away. That was something I wanted to share.”