The detritus of our lives

RAIR presents Martha McDonald's 'Songs of Memory and Forgetting' at Revolution Recovery

3 minute read
Dufala, McDonald, and everyone else's everything else. (Photo courtesy of RAIR)
Dufala, McDonald, and everyone else's everything else. (Photo courtesy of RAIR)

RAIR (Recycled Artists in Residency) produced the quietly riveting performance artist Martha McDonald’s Song of Memory and Forgetting. The opening day performance and installation was scheduled for June 5 at Revolution Recovery, a construction-waste recycling facility that regularly receives materials from home cleanouts, often after one has died or moves to a care center.

Though rain stopped, the grounds and rubble where McDonald’s hour-long performance would take place (400 tons of materials are processed there each day) were too drenched and muddy to seat spectators. I attended a "replacement performance" on Father’s Day.

From trash, treasure

McDonald worked among the heaps and mountains of detritus at the construction site for six months, gathering touching, often heartbreaking, mementos, those traditionally protected by wives and mothers. In the blistering heat (with water and portable chairs available) she walked and sang, pointing out the beauty and hope, the longing and connection, the loss and heartbreak in her found artifacts. Her music, in lilting voice, with poignant lyrics, her face reflecting sadness and as well as joy, flowed. Most of the musical instruments she and her accompanist/collaborator, and RAIR cofounder, Billy Dufala used were also found among the ruins.

Picture this: On the bodice of McDonald’s first costume, many brooches were pinned (I was too spellbound to count), their stones glistening in the bright sunshine. On a large table, as our group of about 30 entered the site, we saw the beauty left behind in many people’s once-cherished homes -- lovely glassware, painted figurines, books and more books, and exquisite dishes, some very much like my late mother’s. My eyes misted when I saw a small crystal pitcher with touches of ruby red: I have its twin, which used to belong to my grandmother.

As McDonald added dress upon dress, the owners of her found treasures were revived, as was their journey from life to death, foreshadowing, of course, our own. We saw a son’s blond hair from his first haircut, and his preciously preserved first shoes. We also saw a lovingly written request from his mother to bury her holding her treasured rosary, also found. Some of our group gasped, filled with internal questions: Why didn’t this happen? What of our treasures? What of our wishes?

We saw a telegram from an ecstatic grandmother: On July 3, 1941, as Hitler threatened our world, Rose Marie Giardinelli gave birth to a son, weighing 5 pounds, 6 and ¾ ounces. Baby boy was 20 inches long.

We saw treasured lace and lovely dresses. We saw photo albums, letters, teacups, and quilts (these were handmade by McDonald), each item touched by McDonald with endearing respect.

I am not sure at what point in our journey I felt I was no longer at a recycling facility, one rescuing trash. Instead, I was attending a memorial service at a gravesite.

At the show’s conclusion, McDonald retreated quietly in reverent song. The audience thanked her with applause and quiet, appreciative mingling.


On our way to the performance, my husband and I passed Curran’s Irish Inn. This is where he suggested we return and where he offered his favorite toast, “L’chaim. To life.” It was followed immediately with a toast to McDonald’s truths: “To women, whose treasures, in spirit and substance, make a house a home.” There was a live band. We danced.

(Author’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, I have known about McDonald’s dedication to raising awareness of the historical role of women in our culture for over a decade, as she is a close friend of my stepdaughter. However, I have only seen her in one other performance.)

What, When, Where

Live at the Dump: Songs of Memory and Forgetting. By Martha McDonald. June 14, 2016 at Revolution Recovery, 7333 Milnor Street, Philadelphia.

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