In late December 2002 as Nebraska newcomers, we moved into a small house about two blocks from Omaha’s St. Cecelia Cathedral. It was a majestic place of worship that sat on a high point in the city and we had a perfect view of it from our circa 1880s cottage.
You’d walk up the stairs to our second floor, and out of the corner of your eye, you’d catch a glimpse of the entire church facade through one of our bedroom windows. It was particularly breathtaking in the evening as the sunset cast a warm glow on the floodlit stone exterior against a dark cobalt blue sky. I’m kicking myself for never having taken a picture of it, it was that stunning.
The closest I can share is this image captured by talented Omaha photographer Colleen Laughlin on Flickr. Be sure to check out her other wow-worthy images, by the way. She took her photo from the northwest tower corner of the cathedral whereas our house had almost this exact same view but from the southwest tower corner.
It was like a saying prayer every time I caught a glimpse of that cathedral from our house or heard its melodic church bells. Breathtaking. Meditative. Peaceful. It was one of my favorite things about that cottage on California Street.
I set foot inside St. Cecelia’s during my first week in Omaha, and it was there I got my first real exposure to Dia de los Muertos, a holiday celebrated today, November 2. Maybe I had heard a passing reference to the Mexican Day of the Dead before then, but it didn’t really click with me. I simply needed something to do so I went to check it out, given that it was just a short walk away from our new home.
My husband and I moved several states away to Omaha after our wedding. I was trying to get a consulting business up and running but I wasn’t extremely busy with it right after the move since my days were filled with unpacking boxes and writing thank yous. After the whirlwind of the wedding and leaving everyone I knew behind in Pittsburgh, I desperately needed to connect with people, some how, some way. I read about the church’s Day of the Dead display in its vestibule so it gave me a good excuse to go and get out of the house. Now the timing of it doesn’t make sense to me because we moved in December, which doesn’t align with the typical early November date of the celebration, but that’s what I remember. I even made it into the paper that day, my first week in the city.
Since then, I’ve learned a bit more about the Day of the Dead. Maybe it took the Pixar movie Coco for me to appreciate Mexican culture even more and the beauty of this day. I’m not Hispanic and while I have a few friends who are, not too many are actually Mexican and we’re not close enough to those who are to get exposure to their celebration.
Now I am Orthodox Christian, and we definitely pray for our dead. We don’t ever stop praying for the dead. Every Sunday we have petitions for those who have passed. We have special services 40 days after death, and on the anniversary of someone’s “falling asleep”. Our church sets aside several days throughout the year to pray for all those who have passed, but you know what? It isn’t something I remember my family or my church making much of a big deal about growing up. Maybe my dad went and left us at home…. And well, we prayed for people, but that was kind of it. My parents really didn’t talk about their parents too much, or anyone who had passed, despite the huge number of aunts and uncles I’ve had and lost.
And besides, you didn’t bring up the people who had died to my mom. EVER. All she did was think about them and cry. She cried endlessly over everyone who was gone, too much, really. It was all so very raw for her, and she had no coping skills to deal with it whatsoever, especially when the one person who could sympathize with her the best – her older sister – passed away too, when I was ten.
Man, that was rough. So my family had no rituals or happy remembrances to pull from.
But me? I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about those who have passed. I can’t say I pray for them as much as I should. But neither do we celebrate their lives. I think we should celebrate them.
So tonight? I’m thinking all of us could take a page from the Mexican book of life to remember our loved ones who have died. For me, that’s quite the entourage: my parents, both sets of grandparents and the father-in-law I never met, 23 aunts and uncles, and even a couple of cousins at this point. Fortunately not very many friends have crossed but a few have, as did the father of our children’s sitter, a woman and friend who we now consider family, such that our kids called this man “grandpa”.
Even our dog, the mellowest basset hound in the world, Monk, has crossed the rainbow bridge.
I want to take a day to honor these souls in a happy way. Display pictures of them and tell their stories. Laugh, a lot. Find the joy, the passion, and humor in each individual. Let our kids know their family history. Pray for all dead we know. Perpetuate their memory. Strengthen the Silken Threads Through Time I once spoke of.
Wouldn’t it be nice if all Americans began to adopt this celebration to honor our roots, our ancestors? And I say this deliberately, because of the awful rhetoric spewed by He-Who-Shall-Be-Unnamed that casts Hispanic culture in a poor light. I want us to adopt the best we have to offer and share with each other.
And regarding the souls who have passed, let me share something we say in church Slavonic:
Vichnaya pamyat, or “eternal memory”.
It is said that we die twice, the first time when we leave this earthly body, and a second time when the last person who knew us on earth dies themself. That’s a poignant thought and almost runs parallel to my irrational fear that one of my portraits will show up on the wall of a Cracker Barrel one day, just another tchotchke because no one will know who I am.
Maybe that’s what drives me to tell my stories, for what those are worth.
What do you do to remember and honor those who have passed? Maybe light a candle for them tonight, gather together, and share your stories. Smile and laugh. Celebrate life.