It was in 2006 that I was first sitting at aunt Hanna’s kitchen, her big family gathered around a small table. The lack of electricity accounted for semi-darkness. On the table, a kerosene lamp shone. These long family gatherings struck me as a habitual mode of spending evenings in the absence of television, and the praxis of telling stories had been closely connected to the exploration of memory.
Someone had an idea, and Hanna handed me a calendar. As Aunt Hanna started a long, complicated story of family relations, consisting primarily of dates of births, marriages, and deaths, she saw that I recorded everyone’s dates and events on the calendar.
Dreamily, looking into the eyes of each other, in my presence as a listener to whom they were supposedly telling the story, the big family slowly collectively reconstructed the sequence of coming into existence and deaths of, it seemed to me, all their relatives. When they were done describing what I would have, perhaps, now called the terms of kinship, genealogies that were lost in the fog of the past in general terms, they concentrated on recollecting unfortunate incidents and unhappy endings.
“Uncle Galastiphone died on the 1st of May in 1997, aunt Maria died on the 23rd of September in 2002, and Kolya drowned on the 12th of October in 2004.”
“Mom, you confuse everything,” Julia would interrupt.
Julia had a long braid thinning to its end. That summer she was eighteen, and day after day she wore the same blue glass heart as a pendant.
“What did I confuse? You were little; you could not remember anything.”
“I tell you, you have mixed up everything. Kolya drowned on the 10th. Ask baba Sasha.”
“No, he drowned on the 12th… Oh dear. Listen, you are right.”
They sat around the lamp and continued waving the chronicle of drownings, suicides, and deadly accidents, paying much attention to when they happened. They reestablished the timeframe, reassembled the temporality. I dutifully marked the calendar — that must be still among my papers — and listened to them enthralled as though to a chant or incantation that had another meaning beyond the evident.
When I revisited Anosovo in 2013, still not knowing that it is going the primary site of my many-year research, I learned, to my surprise that not only had my interlocutors not forget about my previous visit or the calendar — and why would they — but they expected me to retain the information that they shared with me during that long summer night. When an Uncle Jury popped up in the conversation, and I asked how he is doing or where he is working, I received the surprised (and surprising) response: “Oh but we’ve told you that he died.” And Aunt Hannah added, more to herself than to me: “In December 2003.”
“Mama, you confuse everything,” Julie said. She was now twenty-five years old and was no longer wearing her blue pendant. “Not in 2003. In 2002.”
Clearly the importance that my interlocutor and I ascribed to these events was different, which is understandable, but it seemed to me that the sign of acceptance into their life was that I was to share the memory of the timeframe, the names, and the details of the biography of people who I never knew. Over the years, I found myself being part of this memory; my comings and goings were the pillars in time for those who cared to remember. People referred to the state of affairs that I observed during my previous visits (“Do you remember this garden? Nothing grew here last time you came.”)
By sharing memories with people, I was allowed access to the community. I was entering the community through shared memory and was expected to keep my membership.