[The story continued from Monday's picture post]:
For those who have lost, the dead live on here, in the United States, much like the box of Papa’s ashes hidden beneath the curtained table in Mom’s bedroom. Our culture gives permission for grief in the beginning, when mourners don’t necessarily feel like reminiscing, but after several years, we hear messages of “move on” and close our mouths to stories. At first, my memories of Papa came near as firebrands singeing a cow’s hide. But now, three years and two months of life later - life without him - I open the door to welcome in those memories as friends. I didn’t expect, however, those memories to come by way of La Catrina, Mexican icon for Death, parading in a wardrobe of El Dia de Los Muertos costumes.
When I entered the Seattle Center in search of Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival, I wandered past the lines of people waiting for face painting, past the posters and buttons and t-shirts of calaveras for sale, stopping for a few minutes to chat with one of the Mexican vendors at the pan de muerto table and to admire the colorful mural in the sand, then made my way upstairs, past the craft tables of children and adults decorating calaveras de azucar, and into the room of ofrendas de muertos - altars for the Dead. Passing through the doorway into the candlelit room, I felt I stepped into another world.
“The Dead are full of life,” Vera Cala, a contributor to The Global Gourmet website, said in her article on the food traditions during this holiday. “On the Day of the Dead, everything is happy.” I absorbed the energy and celebration mixing with respectful remembrance, the comingling of the Living and the Dead, as I stood and gazed at the altars around the room. I listened, and colorfully, the Dead spoke.
In this room, I wondered what it would be like to be Mexican. How my family would remember Papa and treat our Dead differently and live as if our lives intersecting with each other mattered, if we were Mexican.
This particular wondering followed me through the exhibit, out into the autumn sunshine, down the street to a coffee shop where I sat with pen and paper, onto the bus, and into the apartment I share with Mom. I sat on the carpet and opened the wooden chest that holds Papa’s artifacts, imagining the construction of our own ofrenda de muerto in his honor.
If we were Mexican.
The pieces came together with surprising speed and artfulness. The pencil sketch of Papa and I in an embrace, captured life-like by an artist in Guatemala. A framed photo of our last family picture taken professionally: Dad, Mom, Big Sister pregnant with my now three-year old niece, Brother in-law, Nephew, me. Dad’s handwritten recipe for his famous coffee cake. An empty cannister of his vanilla red bush tea, surrounded by white tea lights and his reading glasses, atop his Bible and a favorite autobiography. The pan de muerto I purchased at the festival. The green sweatshirt advertising his business that almost survived: Still Waters Christian Bookstore and Cafe. Two of his favorite movies: “Blackbeard’s Ghost” and “Superdad”. A cassette tape of a sermon he preached in 2005. A canvas of four handprints - purple, red, pink and blue - our family’s final project the night before he died. The stuffed tiger he gave me for Valentine’s day years ago. A pile of cards I created for him through my childhood years, filled with drawings of animals and Disney characters and misspelled crayon adulations. A Valentine’s day note I wrote for him during high school Spanish class. Two ceramic jars, purchased at an outdoor market with the intent of holding some of his remains, still empty.
If our family were Mexican, we’d travel to Portland every year at the end of October, because that’s where Papa is from, where much of our small extended family lives. Mom, Sis and her family, me, Grandma, Grandpa, Dad’s younger Sister and older Brother and their families, Cousins and their families, Mom’s older and younger Sisters, we’d all try to be there. On November 1st, we’d stay up into the night cooking: enchildadas and tamales, salsa and fresh guacamole, arroz and frijoles, and pan de muerto. We’d decorate calaveras con azucar, laugh together and eat them with the words of the Dead on our lips: “Enjoy the sweet taste of these, La Muerte’s candies, for one day, she will feast on you, too” (Vera Cala). Then, come November 2nd, we would sit together and feast among candles and cempazuchiles (marigolds), swapping stories of our beloved Dead, remembering with joy and not tears, with music and dancing, the lives they lived and the lives we have lived on without them.