My children asked for an ofrenda this year. One of our closest friends has Mexican heritage and they’ve seen their friend’s family’s ofrenda nearly every year since we’ve met. Plus, my kids have the amazing privilege of attending a very diverse school with teachers who value including the stories of the students who attend. Our oldest came home telling me that his music teacher had shown him Coco and that he wanted to remember too. It was beautiful to hear my son ask his friend to tell him what Dia de los Muertos was about and if we could do it with him. It didn’t occur to either of them that their differences would exclude them from sharing this together. My son also didn’t assume his music teacher was the only source of information, but went to a source with direct understanding for more knowledge. I was humbled. What would our world be like if we, as adults, were willing to ask and listen and celebrate? What would it be like if we didn’t assume that our ways were the only and best ways?
I didn’t anticipate my intense reaction to gathering supplies for our ofrenda. Last night, as I was jotting down which foods and items to lay out, I found myself crying. After venturing out to get candles and yellow flowers, I barely controlled the tears in the check-out line. My face was wet by the time I got to my truck. I needed to remember too. I need to remember who loved the scent of lilacs and who ate whole jars of jam in one breakfast, who filled their house with the crackle of cabbage, who rests under a tree adorned with a butterfly wind chime that sings to those who walk near it. Broccoli called trees. Raw onions and melon with pepper. All caps lettering in 9 mm pencil lead. Coffee made sweet and strong and my name pronounced in the sounds of another language. A homecoming corsage and a smile. A big leather recliner with a sunken seat. Cherry pipe tobacco and rings of smoke. Fur and a wet nose, paws that smell like corn chips. As I age, there will be more. I will hurt, and I will miss them.
In this effort to honor my son’s request, I recognized the value personally, for me, in celebrating the Day of the Dead. In the culture I was raised in, grief was meant for the time immediately following a death. Flowers, cards, funerals, memorial services, casseroles galore. And then it’s done. The days continue and the world moves on around you, and your loved one is just gone. In an effort not to bring up pain, people usually don’t ask and their name ceases to be mentioned. But the holidays come, and someone is missing. Birthdays come, and a voice is no longer there in your birthday song. The hurt becomes trapped in the silence and the loneliness is nearly unfathomable. Day of the Dead provides intentional time for those names to be said, the feelings about those people, both ones of joy and sadness, to be affirmed and validated. This time allows the windows of our hearts to open and breathe, for the fresh air to come in and move what needs to be moved.
We need to remember our stories and those involved in writing them with us. This is hard for me to do. The emotions are heavy and it drains me. If I stopped every time I remembered a person or animal gone, I might not move. There are moments when a smell brings a face and a voice; it hurts so much, but there isn’t time to feel all those feelings. Their weight is huge and frightening and I avoid them. I guess you could argue that I’ve nailed down my heart’s windows. It’s especially easy to do that in a society where lying that you’re “fine” when asked is socially acceptable and preferred. Dia de los Muertos provides time to rest and feel and love, to grieve and celebrate alongside others and not alone in your heart and mind.
Our ofrenda will be inside our fireplace and I’ll be made stronger by its presence. It is already helping me loosen the nails and breathe.