Back in ninth grade Spanish class with Senora Lee, I was assigned “The Day of the Dead” for my bulletin board project. We didn’t have Google or even Wikipedia back then, so I went to the World Book (you kids can Google that if you don’t understand) and looked up Day of the Dead. After that ahem exhaustive research, I stapled yellow poster paper to the bulletin board, trimmed it with orange rick-rack, and pinned a Dollar Store dancing skeleton to the center. I carefully traced the title of my project across the top of the display and taped pieces of candy in the empty spaces.
My report, in Spanish, roughly translated to, “The Day of the Dead is a lot like our Halloween. The people of Mexico visit the graves of their ancestors and give candy to the children.” Thanks, World Book. So much for experiencing other cultures. I learned more about Dia de los Muertos from the Google doodle today. From Halloween to November 2 is the narrow sliver of the year when the door is opened, when our departed can return for a visit.
Yesterday, my friend Luis shared a photo of the altar (ofrenda) that he and Brantley created for their home. My heart cracked open to see Spencer there, right beside Lola, Brantley’s beloved dog that he found on the streets of Taiwan. Spencer did so love a pup.
The top level of the altar holds pictures of the souls that you are inviting back into your home. The lower levels offer an array of treats to welcome them–a shot of tequila, a sweet loaf of pan de muerto, a toy for a child. On the lowest level, cool water and maybe soap so they can feel fresh after the journey. All around, candles and bright flowers, sugar skulls.
My own spirit craves a ritual like this. Driving home today in the rain, I cried through three turns of a long red light. It’s easy to cry in the rain because no one’s looking. I thought of who would be on my altar. Daddy, of course, then I realized I don’t have a framed picture of him because I always had him. I would put Richard on there, that picture I took of him at sunset on Santorini, with the big moon hanging in the sky behind him. Grandmama Eunice all dressed up for church. Pop sitting in his recliner with his soft fingers steepled together as he listened to the Braves game on the radio. I’d have Spencer in there too. And Flynt. I’d love to think of Flynt again after so many years. G could bring his people, too–the grandfather who gave Carlos his name.
I’d have a bourbon and branch water for my dad. Sweet tea for the grandparents. A couple of really hot chilis for Pop. A small plate of fruitcake cookies–Daddy and Richard were the only ones who liked them so he made a batch every Christmas. The last of the yellow and orange marigolds from the flower boxes on the deck. The candles that I hid away when Vivi was born. They’re thick with dust but they would remember how to burn.
As evocative as Luis’ altar is, I felt like a fraud at the idea of making my own. The ofrenda isn’t part of my culture. Would I be play-acting? Still, my heart hurt for some ritual, some way to invite the spirits back into my home, even for a few rainy days.
Paige, a college sister, is a Unitarian minister. This weekend, she shared a photo of the candle-covered altar at her church and explained it with these words: “In our annual remembrance service, we honor our precious, imperfect loved ones. And we let our children see our tears.”
Yes. That was what I was looking for–a place to honor the precious imperfect, a ritual to bring the tears into the light (instead of hiding them away in my car at a red light).
The answer came to me in the quiet of my own living room. I walked through there on the way to change clothes after work and my eye lit on the grandfather clock that Daddy made us for Christmas a few years back. How many kids have a grandfather clock made by their grandfather? He made four that fall, all alike, for the four of us and our families. On Christmas Eve, they were lined up near the tree, each with a wide red bow.
It’s the clock we check from the dining room table to say how many minutes before bedtime. It’s the clock that softly chimes the hours while we sleep. It’s been silent for a few months now because the battery ran out on the mechanism and I’ve been too busy to get to the store and buy the right size.
Tonight, I let the kids eat leftover pot roast while I made a special trip to the store. I got the battery, then I sat in the rain in my car and cried a little.
“What you get, Mama?” Carlos asked as I tried to cut the battery out of its packaging. “It’s a battery for the big clock.”
He followed me into the living room and watched silently while I turned the key and opened the narrow door. The pendulum hung still and quiet. Carlos stretched out his hand and waved it along the brass weights and their chains to make them sing. I opened my mouth to correct him…but didn’t. It’s as much his clock as it is mine.
I replaced the battery. I checked the pendulum motor and set it back in motion. I slid the clock back against the wall and the brass sang all in a clatter. Then the pieces settled into the steady work of being a clock. Tick tock. With one gentle finger, I spun the delicate minute hand around until the clock read 7:40.
That’s when I saw it–a precious imperfection. Inside the cabinet of the clock, where the oak face meets the side of the case, a misfired screw poked through. It’s practically invisible, only revealed when the door is open. The instant I saw it, I heard my dad’s exasperated voice bark, “AhhhDAMMIT!” the way he did when he was really angry but already resigned to the fact that whatever was screwed up probably couldn’t be fixed. When the horse was out of the barn, so to speak.
The perfect curves of the clock didn’t move me, the shining brass and the smooth sway of the pendulum, but that tiny screw just 1/16″ out of place brought my dad right into the house again.
Maybe this is the beginning of my own ritual. Every year when daylight saving time ends–right around the Dia de los Muertos–I’ll open up the clock to spin the hour away and I’ll see that precious imperfection and I’ll remember and be glad.