Day of the Dead, Solitary Gringa-style

Day of the Dead is upon us, at last.

It’s my favorite Mexican holiday by far. Things are a bit more tampered down this year as the coronavirus has us scrambling to not add ourselves to the ranks of the dearly departed, but if the dead are your business, well…there’s always business.

A quick trip to the market where I usually get my altar supplies made for a beautiful and familiar scene (scents included) of bright cempasúchil (marigold) flowers, sugar and chocolate skulls, and jamoncillos, which are these little sweet doughy candies that can be dyed and formed into the shapes of different animals, traditional foods…even “novelty” shapes like pizza or aliens. They’re delicious, and I don’t think there’s been a single year in which I haven’t polished a few off before they made it home to the altar.

Also present was the papel picado, that thin colored tissue paper with scenes for the holiday cut out in them. I already had my baskets and a few “offerings” from last year to set out, though I’ll need to go back for the clay incense holder…who knows where it went? Mixed in with the Christmas decoration, no doubt.

As my personal number of dead increase with my own impending mortality, I’ve had to be more selective about who gets a place on the altar. This year, it’s my mother and my grandmother, and that’s it. As this is my first Day of the Dead after separating from my husband, I’m assuming he’ll take care of the offerings for his side of the family on his own altar. Loss is loss, but loss makes room.

My mother would appreciate this effort if she were around, especially given the sweet treats set out for her (I 100% inherited my sweet tooth from her). Is she around? In a literal sense, she is: I have her ashes in an urn on my dresser. She’d always told us she’d wanted to be cremated. While she never specified what she wanted done with her ashes afterwards, I know that she really never enjoyed hanging out by herself, so I brought her home to Mexico with me in an urn she would have surely picked out on her own if she’d been up for such a macabre shopping trip.

My grandmother is another story. She was quite a bit older when she died at 92, but as she climbed up in years, her tolerance for religious practices not sanctioned by her Presbyterian congregation decidedly decreased. She would worriedly proclaim to my sister and I, “But Girls, the Catholics worship the Virgin Mary as if she were Jesus! I just don’t think that’s right!” Suffice it to say, the 92-year-old Mimi would not appreciate being on my altar. But I think the cosmic Mimi would, as would the 60-year-old and younger Mimi, back before she started worrying so much about getting the specifics of religious tradition exactly right, as aging people do. The Mimi who was a vegetarian because she couldn’t bare for animals to die for her sake, the Mimi who woke up every morning to do yoga before it was cool, the Mimi who went off to live in Iraq for four years in her twenties — I think she’d be charmed.

And anyway, the altars are for the living much more than for the dead.

The traditional belief is that on November 1st and 2nd, the dead make their way back home to hang out a bit with their living relatives. They follow the trail of cempasúchil petals from the cemetery to the altars in their homes, lit with candles and filled with the treats they loved in life. Their pictures are there. But mostly, we’re there, waiting for them.

If there are spirits that have returned, I haven’t seen them. Oh, but how I long to spend an evening or two with my mother and my grandmother! Will Mom come have a concha and some hot chocolate with me, and tell me how in love with my daughter she is? Will Mimi sit and chat with me about how she was able to start over from the ashes of her own marriage that couldn’t be saved? They probably won’t, but I’ll wait for them anyway.

Maybe the magic is to simply remember: endless trips to the swimming pool, my mother healthy and happy as she sped-walked through the mall with her best friend or drove us around town listening to country music on the radio; her squeal of excited joy when I told her over the phone I was pregnant, her face filled with love the first time she laid eyes on my daughter. The year we took so long to take the Christmas tree down that we decided to make it a Valentine’s Day tree instead. How she’d hold and rock my sister and I when I cried, emptying out her entire heart into ours so they wouldn’t ever feel empty. And Mimi: the Girl Scout meetings in her living room, watering the plants in her garden early in the morning before breakfast on the patio, baking chocolate chip cookies, the smell of her laundry detergent on the bathroom towels, the stories about clowns we’d beg her to make up for us; how we’d roll our eyes when she’d tell us to “give warm fuzzies, not cold pricklies” and then later realized what good advice that was.

Whatever or whoever comes this year, I’ll be waiting.