El Dia de los Muertos

Dia de los Muertos ofrendaI’m sitting by the altar this morning in my typical glow of nostalgia. The warmth of the fireplace can’t match what I feel from my memories. My thoughts somehow fill me with joy that transcends the pain of loss. Loved ones live again in a way that coincides with the ancient Aztec belief that their spirits descend for their day. Although I have the normal visitations throughout the year, feeling the presence of my sister, or vividly re-living a time with my mother or father, this week fully immerses me in what they mean to my life. They are here with me in the best of ways.

October begins my journey. Who is emerging as the leader in the congregation of spirits that surround me for these days of celebration? I go to sleep with dreams. I wake up with memories and begin probing and questioning in my conversations with family and friends, what do they remember? What reflection brings a smile to their faces and a sense of presence in their heart?

This year my heart is set on the children and young people who are still in the family but not on this plane. My friend lost a grown child this year. My sister, if she could be here, would perhaps focus on her grandchild lost to cancer 15 years ago. My thoughts are with my beautiful niece who lost her life at the end of her last year in college. I am cooking “stringy” pot roast today because her Mom and Dad say that she always wanted that meal when she came home to visit. Maybe it will draw her spirit ever closer.

On the altar this year I have placed her under the watchful eyes of her grandparents, somehow knowing that their benevolent presence remains a factor in her journey through the afterlife. (Do you think they remember her sweet sense of humor from the cards she sent to them?)  She occupies center stage on the mantel, surrounded also by the trappings of Dia de los Muertos.  The skeletons and sugar skulls don’t remind me of her death. I’m celebrating her life.

I chuckle when I think of our first visit when she was born. This baby cousin captivated my children. A photo showing them gathered around her probably began the reference of my older daughter to her slight shyness when she visited from Arizona in her childhood, “Mom, I think she was put off by the unwashed hordes.”  (I don’t love the reference to my child rearing, but I get the point.)

This girl was born a lady. Her mom tells the story of her remarks about the little boy who walked home with her from grade school, “All he does is kick tires and spit.” Strange behavior to a girl who was lovely in spirit and in movement. My younger daughter remembers cousinly beauty routines…not on themselves, but polishing Tootsie’s (the family dog) toenails.  While my brother-in-law watched the news, the two girls would “do” his hair in tiny ponytails and braids.

She was more than just a pretty face, though. She was thoughtful and kind. (As a six-year-old, during show-and-tell, she invited the entire class to her birthday party.  She was caring and as a young woman contributed as a volunteer while at the same time achieving top grades in both high school and college. Before her death she was accepted into law school at both Pepperdine and Willamette.

In spite of all that she was, or perhaps because of whom she was, a young woman with enthusiasm and ambition, she had failures along the way. She was a typical teenager who got lost after dark the first time she took the car away from home and was too embarrassed to approach the clerk at the Circle K when her parents asked where they could find her. My son remembers the day she came home from school with an “F” on a pop quiz. “It was a high “F”,” she said.

“An “F” is an “F””, he replied. And then he probably went outside and kicked tires and spit.

Ah, the memories: Kink’s concert, tag in the back yard of Grandma’s house, my little niece sitting at the picnic table; quietly at first, acclimating to the noise and hubbub that typified family get-togethers. In these and in all of the family sorties, my niece lives on with us. She remains a permanent part of the cousinhood. Her story, written by a 10-year-old cousin on a label-maker, remains: a sweet girl with big brown eyes and a soft voice who loves animals.


She will always be a child of the family. She is captured in a time a place that we have left behind and yet it is easy and sometimes painful to imagine the woman she would have become.

Like my niece, not all of the loved ones on the mantel lived long lives. Each of them lived full lives. And each of them lives on in my heart. xxoo

November 1 2013


  1. If October did that for you, the last day of October and yesterday did it for me. After seven years, our home was lit up for Diwali by the new daughter in law. All the things that our household did for and during the Diwali period have been revived. My thoughts simply will not go away from the one thought that the one person who would have loved it, my late wife is not here to be part of it.

    That is life. And I suppose, death and memories.


  2. This is such a beautiful way to celebrate the memories and spirits of those who aren’t around anymore! I don’t feel that way because I haven’t experienced a log of dying within my family yet. Only my granddad and my uncle died a couple of years ago, but my geanddad gad been very much withdrawn into himself, abd my uncle had lived far away and I only met him once as a child. I don’t think I really knew them.

    Does this ritual come from Latin America? It doesn’t look like a Christian ritual. I find it very fascinating how these traditional rituals coexist with Catholicism.


    • Hi Kath. You are fortunate to have your family intact. Since ours is not, I love this holiday, which to me is a loving way to set aside time to have good memories. And, yes, it is definitely a Latin American holiday. It’s roots are in the pre-Catholic days. It is fascinating in the lesser corrupted (by tourists, etc.) how the ancient rituals and the religious ideas meld and become new tradition. And in some villages in Mexico, they don’t blend but live side-by-side, even in the churches.


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