Oh you guys: as I mentioned in Eternal Memory this past week, we celebrated Dia de los Muertos at our house Friday night. Yeah, yeah…we’re not Mexican. I know. My oldest kinda rolled his eyes and said the same thing. The teenager in him was skeptical about my plans at first but since it involved doing something together as a family, he was game.
We gathered in our family room, brought a bunch of candles in and lit them. Three on the fireplace, three near the fireplace, and three more scattered throughout the room. I love candlelight and it made our little gathering feel sacred.
We really didn’t know how to begin so my husband Ryun started off with a brief prayer. I made a comment about how those we know in heaven are gathered around us, at which point our oldest remarked that if he saw an extra face in the TV or in the corner of the room, he was outta there, which made us all laugh.
I didn’t know where to start, but I brought in several picture albums that my sister made for us siblings, copies of the photos my mom had in her stash. And then I started to talk about my dad, how he was one of seven kids who made it to adulthood, and how three had died as babies. I talked about his character, his parents, who he was close to, what he did in WWII, what he did for a living, and his courtship with my mom. How he had a booming, nasally singing voice such that I felt bad for the woman who sat in front of him in church as her ears had to be ringing by the end of service! How I’d stand next to him in church every Sunday, not much taller than his kneecap, and he’d peer down at me during the sung responses to say, “I can’t hear you”. Dad was the one who expected me to sing from the moment I could.
I told of how he was indebted to his older sister Sue for getting him his job at the local steel plant, a job he kept for 40+ years, and he repaid her year after year for decades by spending his vacation time traveling to Cleveland and working on whatever needed done at her house – like tiling the bathrooms. How he was laid off for a time before I was born and painted houses to get by and provide for his family of four at home. How he never advanced to foreman despite his obvious intelligence and work ethic, because he made the bold mistake of telling his boss that he was a liar….and I have no doubt his supervisor must have been all that and more for my dad to say so to his face. How proud he was to get a watch from the company upon his retirement.
I told our kids how dad broke his collarbone in his early 50s before there was physical therapy and had a hard time getting his arm above his head ever since. How much he hustled and worked hard. If something broke in our house he was ON IT immediately, tearing apart an entire washing machine, for example, until he could find the mechanical piece that wore out so he could run to the store for its replacement. My dad had a work ethic like NOBODY I’ve ever seen.
He was strong, quiet, sensitive, stubborn as hell, smart, hard-working, but a big old softie too. The first time I ever remember seeing him cry was my aunt’s funeral where he broke down sobbing. He had a genuine soft spot for kids too. He preferred to rent the little house behind our home to single mothers as he knew they’d be safe under his watch and they’d take good care of the place. He always kept the cookie jar in our kitchen filled to the brim and the kitchen door unlocked during the day so little kids could help themselves any time they wanted.
I told our kids that once dad made up his mind, you would not change it no matter how compelling your case. How he really disliked conflict but he would still make effort to right a wrong. How when he was in the hospital for the final time, he was unfailingly kind and grateful for the care he received.
Telling these stories was so cool.
Then I did the same for mom, who was one of eight kids. I talked about her twin sisters, her divorced, unapologetically bachelor, gambling, drinking brother Andy with the jet black hair who everyone called Blackie, her adored kid brother named Louis (Louie), a guy who loved to draw, who died way too young at 32…and it’s not lost on me what my last name is. How all her siblings were good-looking, well-groomed, and well dressed even though they didn’t have a lot of money to their name.
I talked about the Cut N Curl beauty shop that my Aunt Mary operated with her twin Nancy and mom during the war. Three tiny, drop-dead gorgeous, oh-so-feisty, lively women engaged in riotous laughter with the customers/friends – how that salon had to be THE place to be. Women worked in the factories while the men were gone off to war but the women didn’t sacrifice beauty: they got their hair done every week no matter what. How my beloved Aunt Nancy would squeeze my cheeks to give me a kiss followed immediately by a full-on bite, leaving a big old wet imprint of teeth marks that would hurt for a full minute after. So gross. Our kids begged me to demonstrate so I did, and they were as horrified as I always was when I was done. We broke down in a fit of giggles.
I told them how the best memories of my mom were when somebody would grab her at a wedding to polka. She loved to dance but dad didn’t know how. How I can still picture Sundays in our house, the sun pouring through the windows, and mom in our big kitchen heating up dinner in the early afternoon after church with the Polka Party blaring on the radio and the Steelers playing on TV in the living room. She’d walk in to tell my dad something and stop right in front of the TV, blocking the view every single time, and we’d all have to yell at her good-naturedly to move since she was completely oblivious to the game unfolding behind her. I can still picture her with a bandanna on her head and a giant heavy ceramic bowl on a chair while she bent over and kneaded dough for nut roll or pierogies a couple of times a year. It was always an all-day endeavor but these specialties of hers were delicious.
Unfortunately with mom comes very sad memories, like the time her sister Nancy died when I was all of ten years old. My mom never overcame her grief. So many of her siblings died too young. They had made it through the Depression, through life with a violent, alcoholic father, through the war, through weddings for most of them, and through an accident that left their mother invalid and wheelchair bound with my mother as her caretaker until grandma died. After making it through all of that, life was supposed to be grand but then tuberculosis, heart attacks, cancer, and cirrhosis took her siblings one by one.
My mother spent the last 10 years of her life crying virtually non-stop, head in hands at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee before her, or laying on the sofa, trying to sleep her life away. Society didn’t talk about mental illness or depression then in any sort of positive way – there was such a stigma – and the only sort of treatment for her condition was Valium, which I am pretty sure she took. She couldn’t focus on her husband, her kids including me, or her grandkids no matter how much joy they inherently brought. Her mother and her siblings were the most important part of her life and the joy of that life fizzled out for good when her best friend, my Aunt Nancy, died. In a year’s time, I was the only child left at home, with my brother off to college and my older two sisters married adults on their own at that point.
I told the story about how my grandfather ran a still during Prohibition, had horrific anger issues, and tried to kill his wife and kids on Christmas day with a shotgun, leaving them all to hide in a barn for their lives. The only reason I even know that story is because my godmother, his youngest daughter, shared that news in a rare moment of honesty in her elder years. Over the years in hushed tones, I learned how he ran off to New Jersey where he may have done something unspeakable. Who really knows.
My other grandfather hurt himself in the mines and couldn’t work after that; he couldn’t walk without the aid of a cane. There was no rehabilitation or social security at the time. He asked to borrow money from my dad under the premise it was needed for the family, and then used it to buy alcohol. My dad really never forgave him for it.
Not surprisingly, neither of my parents drank a sip of alcohol, and neither one ever spoke of their fathers. It was only at the end of my father’s 80-year-old life that I got him to tell that story of his own father, and he had a difficult time sharing even that tiny bit about him.
Their mothers, on the other hand, were revered, absolutely adored, practically worshiped. I told the kids how my grandmothers couldn’t have been more than 4′ 9″ tall. Our 10-year-old daughter is probably taller than they ever were and yet these women popped out how many kids? There’s a picture of maternal grandmother with a twinkle in her eye, one kid hitched to her hip, and a few of the others gathered around her, the oldest maybe 13 and as tall as she is. My dad is positioned in front in shorts, maybe three years old, and he looks antsy. This photo astonishes me and makes me laugh whenever I look at it. It is so unlike other photos of the time, nearly 100 years old at this point, taken outside, in a very candid and casual pose. Who would have taken this photo and under what circumstances?
I would much rather remember my mother in happier times, so I mimicked how my mom would hop on my dad’s lap, hug him, rub her hand on his face and bald head, and say “oh honey”, and dad would shake his head and admonish her, “You’re gonna break the chair!” but he wouldn’t push her off, and our kids giggled in fits. How I found my dad’s WWII love letters to mom one holiday gathering. My dad threatened to ground 10-year-old me if I read them, and I defied him by saying, “It’s worth it” and proceeded to do so so my sisters and brothers-in-law would hear. He was so mad he gathered up every last letter and burnt them! This was the same dad who crouched in the back of a car to surprise my mom who was asked to go on a car ride. He presented her with a rose-gold watch…one I believe I still have. This is the same man who wrecked his car for the first of only two times in his 80-year-long life, when he craned his neck to look at a pretty woman and hit a parked car. He was staring, apparently gobsmacked, at my mother.
We then started flipping through the albums. And the pictures came to life. My dad in his Army uniform, wearing an apron, drying dishes at my grandmother’s house while my mom, his girlfriend, washed. Mom is standing at the sink with long, wavy brown hair casting a silhouette that could just as easily been me. The pictures show that same house, the one I grew up in, before and after my dad remodeled it with his own hands, as well as the little house behind our house that my parents lived in at first. The pictures show my kitchen growing up, my grandparents, godparents, aunts and uncles, my parents, and my siblings and I when we were younger. Uncle Andy, or Blackie as they called him because of his jet black hair, dressed to the nines. My grandmothers side by side at my parents’ wedding. Our yard when it was my grandmother’s house and she made it into a huge flower garden. My mom, with her giant smile and dimples, and how much she looks like my sister and my niece today. Mom and Dad’s wedding day, kissing in front of the church.
The kids ate it up. Every last bit. But one of our kids had returned from an overnight camp and slowly began to drift off, so we had to call it quits for the night and resume later in the weekend when we could celebrate my husband’s family later on this weekend. We had planned to watch Coco… to cap off the night because it’s about music, and family, and well, that’s us too. We ended up watching it later that weekend as well. Next year we’ll build up it more, prepare some ancestral foods like Eastern European kielbasa and pierogies, or maybe some Chinese and Hawaiian food to celebrate.
As we wrapped things up, our youngest suggested we close with a prayer so Ryun asked him to do it. He didn’t want to at first, being unsure of what to do. But instead of succumbing to embarrassment, he gave it a go. That little heart inside of him thanked God for all that we have and then he closed the prayer by asking God to bless “all the souls in the world”. OMG. The tears. The pride inside my heart. He’s EIGHT. He gets it.
We don’t know what we’re doing as parents but we’re gonna keep doing it.
This was, hands down, the coolest thing we’ve done in a long time. I suggest you give it a whirl. You see, we pray for the dead all the time at church, but we don’t often celebrate them. And we Louies don’t live around a lot of family here in our part of Ohio, so the stories my husband and I tell are one of the only ways our kids will ever know about their family history. Ryun and I had huge extended families, and certainly on my end, there are so many stories that make me chuckle, and cry, and everything in between.
I plan to do it again this coming July, but focus entirely on my dad as this coming July would have been his 100th birthday.
There’s another reason I wanted to celebrate Dias de los Muertos. I’ve watched Mexicans get a bad rap in this country with this ridiculous political climate we’ve been in these last two+ years, the whole “they’re rapists, murders, etc.” claim which is false. My friends know how much that ticks me off but you, this blog audience of mine don’t necessarily know that.
I think what Mexicans do with this holiday is amazing. I have always thought we can learn from each other and borrow the best of what each of us has. For heaven’s sake, we turned St. Patrick’s Day into its own thing that even the Irish don’t recognize! We’ve hijacked Cinco de Mayo too and we Americans don’t even know what that’s supposed to be. Maybe I can be accused of cultural misappropriation here, but I think what our neighbors to the south do is remarkable. It reminds me of when we visited my mother in law’s hometown cemetery in Hawaii right after Memorial Day. The Hawaiians set up lawn chairs and flowers on the graves and hang out there all day, eating and telling stories about their loved ones who died.
Let’s embrace beautiful traditions we have and the stories about our loved ones on the other side of the veil. One day we just may learn that the thinnest of matter in the universe actually separates us from them at this moment in time.