When I was a little girl, I used to draw pictures of graves. Specifically, graves you might find in a Mexican cemetery. Crosses, with Virgin Marys, and candles, and offerings of bougainvillea. For about six months, headstones were my prime artistic focus. I spent so much time drawing graves that my parents were actually weirded out. And it took a lot to weird out my parents.
I guess you could say that I’ve always been morbid. But I’m not goth girl morbid. Yes, I like Edward Gorey and Tom Waits and the occasional item from Hot Topic, but I like to think my morbid tendencies are not so much a reveling in the romance of death as a desire to lessen the pain of loss by remembering and honoring the dead.
When I was growing up we spent a lot of time in Mexico, but we didn’t usually head south for the winter until late November or early December. On November 1 and 2, we’d still be in Oregon, so the Dia de los Muertos celebrations of my childhood didn’t involve the flower-laden cemeteries of my drawings. At the time, Dia de los Muertos was certainly less of a thing in the US. But my mom was always drawn to ceremony and my dad was deeply sentimental. They had both been profoundly shaped by loss, and they had both devoted their lives to the appreciation of Mexican culture. It’s no surprise that they latched onto the holiday and created their own Day of the Dead traditions.
Because most of our dead friends and relatives had been cremated, we didn’t have a cemetery to hang out in, but we always built a big altar and invited friends over for food, drinks, music, and reminiscing. Standing around the altar on our front porch, we lit the candles at dusk and sang songs we associated with the dead. For my dad’s side of the family it was “Red River Valley,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” which never failed to bring him to tears. My grandmother Maki often joined us and I’d hold her hand, smooth and solid and silky with age, and stare, transfixed by candlelight, at the black-and-white photo of my grandfather Harry, looking like a wily old hobo. My mom always sang “Last Rose of Summer” for her mother and “Blackbirds” for our friend Bob.
After my dad, Steve Rogers, died of cancer, my mom and I added a new song to our repertoire, another song that had always made my dad weep: Paradise, by John Prine. When Maki died, we just kept singing “Red River Valley.” When my friend Shayna was killed in a car accident (six years ago to this day–miss you), things got a little more raucous with “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” If I were away from home for the holiday, I always built a little altar, and celebrated with a few close friends, people whom I could trust not to find the whole thing silly or hokey.
My parents taught me how to make and keep friends. They taught me the value of an extended family not necessarily related by blood. The many upsides to a huge network of family friends are shadowed by one bitter downside, which is that loving a lot of people means losing a lot of people. Every year new photographs appear on the altar, and every year we sing a new song. From our “Mexico” side of the family alone, I remember: Felisa (mi tocaya), Guadalupe, Al and Carol, Larry Brown, Susan, Judy, Maria, Jimmy and Heather, Chino, Juan Virgen “Zeta,” Octaviano, Martina, Ken, Marty, Madeline, Christian, Damian, Diane, Anna Roy, Carol Delattre, Ruby, Rojita, Rolf, David, and…well, I’m sure I’m missing someone.
I guess some people might cry “cultural appropriation” at the idea of gringos celebrating Dia de los Muertos. But I think it’s important to remember that most of this world’s greatest traditions are the result of the appropriation, borrowing, and merging of ideas. Dia de los Muertos is a merging of pre-Hispanic holidays that honored the dead with the European tradition of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which is itself a merging of Catholicism and older pagan practices.
For me, setting up the yearly altar and cooking special food is a way of paying respect. They say that this is the time of year when the veils between the worlds are the thinnest. I’m agnostic to the core, and I don’t exactly believe in the afterlife. But hey, I like to keep an open mind. I’d certainly prefer to believe that my dad is hanging out on the Big Rock Candy Mountain. It’s easier to entertain the idea when I’m standing on the porch on a November night,breathing air rich with dead leaves and burning candles and listening to the fir needles sing in the wind.
I’ve watched death come to people I love. I’ve watched death yellow my dad’s skin, and create a vast vista of sorrow in the eyes of a friend. I’ve watched death steal the ones we love best: a blonde boy, a strong girl, a little black cat. I don’t know if I can make friends with death. But this is my way of coming to terms with it.