I stumbled upon Dia de los Muertos in October of 2001 while wandering around Pilsen on my lunch break. I had been in Chicago for about six months, and my dad had been dead for four of those. I had few friends in the city and even fewer at my job, so I spent most of my work time sneaking out to soak in grief and wander around the blocks adjacent to my office.
One afternoon, while approaching a small patch of grass the city tried to pass off as a park, I saw a folding table draped in a bright yellow cloth and festooned with marigold garlands. On top of the table, there were large cardboard boxes covered in bright paper and crepe garlands stacked up like a short pyramid. I got closer to investigate and saw a placard in English and Spanish proclaiming that this was a community altar for Day of the Dead. It was late October, so a few people had already started decorating the altar with photos, notes, and neatly packaged bags of candy and food. Mementos like toy cars, rubber chickens, funny figurines, and action figures were also tucked in to the growing pile, and I imagined these were whimsical inside jokes between the grievers and the deceased. I was drawn to the juxtaposition of festivity and grief – the first time I had seen a reflection of my conflicting feelings of mourning and celebration for my dad’s “homecoming”. I became obsessed with the idea of adding to the altar for my dad.
I wrestled with the idea of the altar for a week. I made a list of what I could bring: A picture of my dad, a photo of a lobster tail, a small toy gorilla. I went back to the altar again and again and watched the tiers become cluttered with hundreds of notes, objects, and squirrel-eaten food. The fact that I was not really part of the community or the culture gave me pause. But the gut-churning longing to join with these anonymous People Who Had Lost, to add my ache to the pile of grief, to find a bit of humor and festivity in the darkness, kept me coming back to the altar.
Eventually, I wandered a little farther on my altar-watching trek and made it to the National Museum of Mexican Art and saw that they had a whole exhibit about Dia de los Muertos. Sugar skulls, dancing skeletons, paintings, sculptures, and helpful descriptions helped me put together a bigger picture for this new obsession. When I got to the very last room of the exhibit, my breath caught in my throat. I saw a small alcove plastered with neon post-it notes on every inch of the wall. Notes that people had written to their beloved dead. Notes, the description informed me, that would be collected and burned on the Day of the Dead as a kind of offering. Perfect. I cried with relief and sadness as I grabbed a green post-it and scribbled:
I stuck it on the wall with the hundreds of other notes of love and longing and release and I left. I didn’t go back to the altar. I didn’t want to see it succumb to the elements, as it was designed to do. I had fulfilled the need to be part of a collective mourning.
When my mom died a few years later, I thought about driving down to Pilsen and hunting for an altar. I didn’t. We remembered her in different ways, and my Chicago circle was much bigger. More of my friends had known and loved my mom, so I had a communal mourning for her in a way I hadn’t with my dad.
In 2014, my brain was pulled to the altar again. Another quieter, lonelier grief stirred fleeting ideas of a road trip to the city. That year, I thought about finding a community altar to grieve the loss of tiny twins who I would have delivered in late October. Miscarriage is such private grief. No one knew them – not even me! There are no photos, no favorite foods, no shared memories. The doctor didn’t even print out the ultrasound picture. I saw them exactly one time, and that was on the day I was told “So, there are two, but neither has a heart beat”.
We had a different kind of anonymous but communal mourning for the babies, even though only about 15 people in the world even knew they had existed at the time. Like I had when my dad died, I was aching for a way to express some kind of public yet anonymous grief. I wanted to scream at everyone I met in those first few weeks “MY BABIES DIED!”, but I didn’t. I wanted to share their brief existence with the world, but couldn’t think of any socially acceptable way to do it.
I miscarried in March (fun fact: on my mom’s birthday!). Easter was right around the corner. I read in the bulletin of the church we were attending that congregants were invited to bring any kind of flower to the altar on Easter Sunday, and they would provide small notes and floral picks so we could write a note with the memorial information on it and stick it in the plant. So that Easter, I brought a small, double-bloomed hydrangea to the altar at church, pulled out a white square of paper and wrote:
With love for our twin stars.
A different kind of celebration, a different kind of offering. The tradition I grew up in remembered those who had died with Easter Lilies and other flowers on Easter Sunday – a reminder of rebirth and beauty rising up from the soil after the death of winter. Now I think of my parents and grandparents primarily on All Saints Day. I didn’t grow up recognizing All Saints Day, but now I’m drawn to it: a quiet, usually chilly fall day of reflection on those who have gone before us that doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of Easter festivities.
We aren’t limited just to those officially recognized saints. Anyone in what the church folks like to call The Great Cloud of Witnesses counts as a saint. Most of us will never do anything that gets us considered for beatification, but someone will think about us when we are gone, and I do think about how I wanted to be remembered. Maybe one person will remember that I shared a little hope when they had run out or shouldered something with them when their back was stooped with grief. I hope my daughter will remember me with even a measure of the love and admiration I still feel for my own mom.
Ultimately, we’ll all be there someday, leaving this life for whatever comes next. On All Saints Day, I remember the quote attributed to Ram Daas – We’re all just walking each other home. On All Saints Day, I recommit to being a person who will walk into the grief when that’s the path in front of me or the people I love – to mourn with those who mourn. And recommit to filling my lungs with beauty and joy every day I still have breath. Don’t forget to dance with those who dance. If no one around you is dancing, put on a song that reminds you of someone you love and bust a move. My All Saints Day playlist includes In A Gadda Da Vida and Age of Aquarius.