Feliz dia de la MuertosPosted: November 1, 2012
Today is the first day of Dia del los Muertos. I went with Luther’s class to the annual show at Desert Botanical Gardens. Lute wrote a card for Grandpa Walter, who died this past July, and put it in the basket next to the ofrende. It felt good to do something about missing him.
He was the first person I ever watched die. Other than babies being born, it was the most natural, peaceful thing I could imagine. The day before he passed, we were gathered in his hospice room with the priest, who was about to perform last rites. Two-year-old Walter crawled up on Grandpa’s bed, kissed him on the cheek and announced, “Gampa dying.” It was this perfect moment that made us all realize what a normal, universal thing death is. Grandpa was ready (he’d said so many times) and so were we. The sadness evaporated for a moment and the room was filled with love and acceptance.
Today is All Souls Day, a holy day of obligation for Catholics and a day to honor the ones we love who have passed to the other side. I am no longer a practicing Catholic–I’d be excommunicated for my beliefs and my own ideas about morality and faith–but I am still a Catholic. And today, Grandpa has been with me every minute.
My grandfather was not involved in my life the way my parents are in my children’s lives. He was always warm and kind, but I never felt like a knew him. He was deeply unhappy–so much so that once he even wrote a suicide note and disappeared for a day. He and my grandmother had a tumultuous and unhappy marriage and a contentious relationship with their sons and daughters-in-law.The last ten years of his life, though, he became a different man. He and my grandmother learned to love each other in a way that is beyond what most people hope to experience in their lives. They were profoundly in love and deeply happy. When their health declined, they moved into a group home staffed by a group of Filipinos who care for their charges with compassion, love and kindness. They lived the rest of their time together there and they both said they were the best years of their lives.
When I was pregnant with our third son, we lost our house. We had nowhere to go. Grandma and Grandpa immediately offered us their old house, the one in which they’d raised my father and his three brothers. The one where I had spent every Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter since I was born. They insisted we pay no rent (although we always have) and that we stay there as long as we wanted. They’re kindness and generosity got us through one of the hardest times in our lives. They had rarely shown this kindness to their own children and everyone was astonished by the change in them and the depth of their kindness. It showed us all that we could all be better. It showed us that it’s never to late to be happy. I can’t repay them the debt of gratitude I owe them. They have been a bright light in my life and I blessed that I’ve gotten to spend these years with them.
When our baby was born, we named him Walter.Grandpa Wally was enamoured with him from the beginning. You’ve never seen anyone more in love with a baby. On our many visits, he would hold Walter and stare lovingly at him, caressing his tiny hands and feet and saying, “He’s so tiny. He’s so perfect.” He would whisper, “I’m so happy.”Walter still asks for his great grandpa. It makes me sad sometimes that eventually he won’t remember him. I am determined to keep the memory alive in him with stories and pictures. For now, all I can say is, “Grandpa loves you very much. He’s in heaven, but he sees us and loves us.”
I’ve heard several people complain about how Dia de los Muertos has been co-opted by trendy white people. They sport tattoos of brightly decorated skulls, they paint their faces for Halloween, they decorate their houses with Day of the Dead dolls, they attend calaveras art installations and there’s even a Day of the Dead Monster High Doll. But American commercialize everything. I’m used to it. I am pretty good at insulating myself and my family from this commercialization and exploitation, though. But in many cases, under the surface commercialization is real appreciation and respect. Dia de los Muertos is truly beautiful, both spiritually and visually. When you live in the Southwest, you can’t help but get caught up in the celebration.
I encourage you to attend La Procesión, at the Desert Botanical Gardens on Sunday. Mexicans march to the cemetery to visit loved ones, but that’s not exactly practical in downtown Phoenix. But you can still celebrate the lives of the ones you’ve lost by joining this festive momento mori come to life.
Here are some of the ofrendes Lute and I saw today:
My parents went to the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago last year to see the Mondragon family sugar skulls. The father is old and in poor health, so they won’t be available in the U.S. much longer. It’s a dying art–only a few families in Mexico make them in the traditional way, so my little sugar skull family is dear to us.
Pan de los muertos (bread of the dead–I love this) from La Purisima:
My Grandpa Wally