Tag Archives: Daddy

Give What’s Left of Me Away

Daddy’s birthday was always so easy to remember–the last day of May.

A sadness hung around the edge of today. I did a pretty fair job of keeping it at bay, but it knocked some tears out of me about 4:30 this afternoon. I was cleaning out files from my computer at work and I came across this picture. A reader named A.L. sent me this poem a few weeks ago. She said it had helped her and she thought I might want to read it too. I did. Thank you.

when i die

 

“So when all that’s left of me is love, give me away.” That’s where we are today, on what would have been Daddy’s 74th birthday. Looking for a way to give away this love that I can’t give to him anymore.


After work, I had to go to Kroger. In the checkout line, a voice behind me whispered, “Hey, purdy!”

I love Hank because he always always always says, “Hey, purdy!” when we bump into each other at the hospital or around town. Not hello pretty lady or hi beautiful. “Hey Purdy.” This is the language of my people. He’s a sweet soul.

Hank’s buggy was loaded down with big bags of Cat Chow. In addition to being a kind-hearted hospice nurse, he’s a one-man cat rescue operation. He feeds a couple of colonies of feral cats (and catches them for spaying) and finds homes for as many kittens as possible.

I pulled out my wallet and handed him a couple of twenties. “My daddy loved kittens, so here’s something for the fund. If you see any yella ones, feed them a little extra for his birthday.” He did so love a yella cat.

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At his memorial service, Brett told a story from right after Daddy and Big Gay got married. Daddy was still trying his best to make friends with his new step-daughter, so he asked Brett to ride along with him on a call to a farm. After the doctoring was done and they were about to leave, Daddy told Brett that there was a litter of kittens in the barn. “Go pick one out and you can bring it home.” So Brett did, even though they both knew her mama was not going to be pleased. Later that night, she heard Big Gay complaining about the kitten (because their house was already busting with animals, naturally). In a commiserating tone, Daddy straight up lied to his bride: “Gaaaay…What was I supposed to do? Brett BEGGED me for that kitten!” That’s how much he loved kittens.


I’ve put in four tomato plants this year and they make me happy and sad all at the same time. I wasn’t going to put any in, but our neighbor, Coach Cavin, had some plants left over from the ag class that he teaches at the high school.

Those plants have shot straight up over the last couple of weeks. I can’t look at a tomato plant without thinking of Daddy. He loved starting plants from seed in the greenhouse. Instead of flat orderly seeding trays, he started his plants in white styrofoam coffee cups so he could write the variety on each container. By the time Easter rolled around, each of us left the house with a flat of tomato plants to grow as best we could. A couple of years ago, he started something like 200 plants!

I think of the summer that Vivi toddled over to the corner of the kitchen where he kept his harvest. Before anyone noticed, she had taken one bite out of every tomato in a half-bushel basket. There was the bumper crop summer when he made shelf after shelf of salsa. He and Big Gay lived most of the summer on tomato sandwiches with great gobs of mayo.

Daddy came from a long line of farmers. He once said that most people today were so out of touch with how food really gets to their tables, that if an apocalypse happened and we had to rebuild the food supply, most people would start by building a grocery store.

YUF

 

Tonight, I got another chance to give love away in his memory. In addition to the West Broad Farmer’s Market (my new favorite weekend destination!), the Athens Land Trust runs a program called Young Urban Farmers.  In conjunction with our county high schools, YUF gives students a chance to earn and learn. “Throughout the program year, the students develop business plans, create sustainable agriculture-based products and sell them at the West Broad Farmers Market.” Last weekend, I bought a beautifully constructed cedar bluebird house and a tie-dyed shirt colored with blueberries from students in the program.

Students who complete all of their assigned work in the farming program are paid $7.50/hr. The Athens Land Trust is raising funds right now to keep the program going. I made a donation of $74 in memory of the greatest tomato fan who ever lived. These kids will know that the food system does not begin at Kroger!


That’s how I got through today. Giving away all that’s left of my father–love.

Chili Dogs and Sawdust Make Me Cry

Last week, I ruined a pan of milk gravy that I was fixing with porkchops. I cried over that pan of gravy, but not because it had too much salt yet still tasted like cornstarch. I cried because I couldn’t call Daddy and laugh with him about how bad I had messed it up. He was the master of gravy. Back when he was feeling like himself, he would have gasped and squawked and cried, “How could my own child not know how to make milk gravy???” He would have carried on the same way he did when I confessed that I didn’t know how to cut up a chicken. We would have laughed about it and he would have told me to put a potato in soup if I ever add too much salt. And we would have talked for a while then said, “I love you” before hanging up.

I ate that damn gravy, every salty bite, because I didn’t want to let it go.

 

wood-877368_1920We’re replacing the boards on the deck. The day the nice man from Lowe’s delivered the lumber and piled it up in the driveway, I started feeling a little strange. A soft, gray sort of pining in my chest, a little lost echo. After the first day of construction, I stepped out on the deck and smelled the pine tang of freshly sawn wood. Instantly, I started crying. The smell of new lumber–that’s what had stirred up my feelings. My daddy is supposed to be around for construction projects. At least he was up until a few years ago when Joe and James took over. When I needed a fence put up or taken down, or a door hung or a cabinet replaced, it was Daddy who brought the saws and the nail guns and the levels. Now I hire a stranger.

All that sawdust flying around revealed a perfect little cobweb in the corner of the window, only visible once it was covered in bits of wood shavings. In the mornings, I sit on my corner of the loveseat and watch the dew and sawdust sparkle on the fine threads of the web. Memories are like that–here is this fine thing that you never noticed and now it’s visible.

A seed catalog came in the mail on a day when snow swirled outside the windows. I cried over that catalog and the thought of all those tomato plants that won’t get planted this winter. Daddy had a greenhouse and a green thumb. He started his vegetables from seed, in row upon row of white styrofoam cups. He started using those instead of seed trays a few years ago because he could write the variety on every seedling, never confusing a Better Boy for an Early Girl. At Easter, each of us would leave with a tray of tiny plants for our own garden plots. One year, he started 200 tomato plants. That was the year he learned how to can salsa, too.

Daddy and Big Gay waged a quiet battle of encroachment in their garden. It started out as a vegetable garden with one of the large plots set aside for Gay’s flowers. Then the next spring, the flowers had spread to an adjoining plot. Eventually, peonies and antique roses and poppies and larkspur and a carpet of dianthus took up half of the garden space. Just like Nazi Germany (to hear Daddy recount it), the flowers infiltrated borders and claimed land that was destined from the beginning of time for turnip greens and potatoes.

If there aren’t any tomatoes this year, I’ll understand. I can even grow my own but I’ll have to buy a few from the nursery, the week after Easter.

The worst bout of tears blindsided me on a Saturday while I stood over a frying pan of hot dogs. When I was little, there was no greater adventure than a Saturday spent “riding around” with Daddy. Country veterinarians work on Saturdays, too. Riding with Daddy meant going all over the county in a rattle trap Ford pickup truck that smelled like worm pills and Marlboro cigarettes. I felt so proud when he let me hop out of the cab to open and close cattle gates. Sometimes I got to see an actual horse and maybe even pat it on the nose if it wasn’t feeling too poorly. At every farm, he introduced me as his baby.

As we drove along on calls, Daddy listened to talk radio back when it was talking and not shrieking. He’d listen to Ludlow Porch out of Atlanta. I remember one time hearing Ludlow say that something cost “a grand.” I asked Daddy what a grand was and he laughed and said, “All the money in the world, Shug. All the money in the world.”

de3c02294fe0fa70fb4b5f064f8d71cdAround lunch time, we’d stop at a little gas station/grocery store like Red O’Neal’s or Mr. Connell’s and get us a pack of bright red hot dogs, a can of Castleberry chili, and a bag of Sunbeam buns. Maybe a couple of RC Colas or a grape Nehi. Back at his clinic, which was built onto the corner of a big cattle barn, so it always smelled like manure and fresh hay, Daddy would plug in the electric hot plate and we’d fix up a plate of chili dogs on top of the surgical table. When the chili dogs got good and hot, I’d get the bottles of ketchup and yellow mustard out of the door of the medicine refrigerator. I still remember how the well-sealed door popped open so hard that the little glass bottles of insulin and rubber-stoppered test tubes of blood rattled in their racks.

As I stood there frying up hot dogs for my own kids, I realized how we have no idea which memory will stick. What will it be sixty years from now that brings a tear to Vivi’s eye when she remembers me? Will she have a photograph (or a story on the ancient internet) to jog her memory? If only I had a picture of a hot plate of chili dogs bubbling on an operating table. Or if that clinic still existed so I could go back for a moment to capture its sharp clean smell of disinfectant, its rattling refrigerator, and the baying of a dozen dogs in the kennel wishing for a bite of whatever was smelling so good.

What I wouldn’t give for a Saturday morning driving around the countryside with my Daddy, learning about grand things and simple things and picking out a bag of potato chips from the wire rack by the cash register of a gas station.

I’d give all the money in the world, Shug. All the money in the world.

Somebody Has to Bake the Pie

In my last appointment before the holidays, my therapist and I talked about how this year would be different without my dad there. Big Gay does so much of Christmas for us, but there were a few things that belonged to Daddy alone.

Like we usually had one present that was just from him to each of us. For many years, it was Far Side desk calendars. Or it would be smell-good stuff from the drug store. Or fancy coffee. Or step ladders–that was a fun year.

Over the years, he bought a set of cranberry red Waterford champagne flutes, one or two at a time and we used them to drink a toast on Christmas Eve. The first year, when there were only two for Big Gay and him, he said, “I saw these and had to buy them because they were the only thing I ever saw that was almost as pretty as you.” Then we drank her health.

And he made the sweets, candies and cookies and especially pie. I think the pie phase started about fifteen years ago. He liked mincemeat–maybe the only person left in Georgia who ever liked mincemeat–so he had to learn to make it for himself. There were five or six kinds of pie at every holiday dinner.

When the pie phase held on long enough to become A Thing instead of a phase, Big Gay surprised Daddy one Christmas with a new Kitchenaid mixer. He was so excited that he kept it on the floor by his reading chair all day, so that he could “reach down and pet it.” Joe offered to make him a little wagon so he could drag it up and down the street and show it off to his friends.

Sometimes Christmas and pie led to strife. One year, I walked into the library and Daddy was sitting in his reading chair staring off into space. When I asked what was going on, he pulled a little face and said, “Mark said my pie crust might be better if I used half lard and half butter instead of all butter.” I rolled my eyes and said, “Can’t we have ONE HOLIDAY when you boys don’t argue about pastry?” (Mark is Little Gay’s husband, and in addition to being a neurosurgeon, mountain climber, and lawyer, he also took a year off to work as a pastry chef. I shit you not. And he’s pretty good-looking too. But he can’t dance, so there’s that.)

Whatever the ratio of butter to lard, Daddy always made a lattice-crust cherry pie for my sister-in-law, Beth. She got to take the whole pie (or whatever was left) home on Christmas Eve (and return the pie pan sometime in the summer or just buy him a new pie pan for Father’s Day). It was their special thing, a simple way that he showed her he loved her.

When I was telling my therapist about all these holiday traditions, it was the cherry pie that made me break down in tears. She told me that the plain truth is that if a tradition is important enough to the family, those who are left behind after a death have to decide to be responsible for carrying the tradition forward. Somebody’s got to quit being sad and bake the pie.

Mark would be the logical choice, right? I wasn’t exactly operating on logic when I set my heart on making a cherry pie for Beth.

I asked my friend Jo, who is a brilliant cake baker, for her pie crust recipe. She chuckled and said, “Pillsbury–the kind you roll out. It’s in the freezer section in a red box.” I filed that away… right next to my overblown intention to look up some Ina Garten or Gale Gand recipe for Pâte Brisée and learn how to make it from scratch. I was doing this task to uphold a cherished memory of my father–no shortcuts.

Except time got cut short. I meant to practice one weekend and forgot and then it was the day before Christmas Eve and I hadn’t even bought the Pillsbury pie crust in the red box. Dammit. All I had made was a shopping list when time ran out–I had to get myself to Griffin for the service to scatter Daddy’s ashes. For the second time in a few weeks, I started crying about that cherry pie. I had held it up as a moment of happiness, a moment of forward motion in this season of loss.

G took the list from me and promised that he would go to the store for the supplies.

Then when I told Big Gay about my plan, she opened up the kitchen drawer and gave me Daddy’s….wiggly pastry cutter thingy that you use to make the lattices for the crust.

I should have asked Mark what it was called, but he had lost the power of speech after I confessed I was using Pillsbury crusts. Even though his lips were pressed in a thin line at the thought of Poppin’ Fresh, he didn’t say a word to discourage me. He even handed me the wood-handled metal scraper thingy that you use to push flour around and said, “Every pastry chef needs a (insert technical term for scraper thingy).”

Mark has already told me how to weave the lattice together, so next year will look less wonky.

Mark has already told me how to weave the lattice together, so next year will look less wonky.

The next morning, I got up early to give it one good try. Vivi stirred the cherries and sugar and almond flavoring while they bubbled on the stove. Victoria washed up the pans. I cut lattices and patted butter and crossed my fingers. I remembered to put aluminum foil around the crust edges, just like Daddy did.

My favorite moment of baking that pie wasn’t later that night when Vivi showed it to Aunt Beth. My favorite moment was a few hours before that, when I tucked the pastry tools that had belonged to my father into my own kitchen drawer. When I decided that I will make a cherry pie every year in memory of my dad and his kind heart. He had a knack for knowing how to delight each of us in a simple and profound way.

It might take our whole family to get this pie right. That’s OK. My pies will only get better with Mark’s advice, Big Gay sharing the tools, G running to the store, and Vivi stirring the pot. It’s the same lesson that my therapist told me: if it’s important enough, the family will take up the responsibility for making sure it gets done.

It takes a family to make a family.

Even if that first cherry pie was a hot mess (I used the wrong kind of cherries so it wasn’t tart, way too sweet and the crust was merely serviceable) Beth texted today to say that she had eaten another piece for breakfast.

Sweet.

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Aunt Beth and Vivi, Year One of the Cherry Pie

 

An Orange in the Toe of Your Stocking

This morning, when I tied the last few bows around the last few presents for my kids, I remembered a similar feeling from when I was a teenager, many Christmases ago. I loved wrapping presents. Loved it loved it loved it. I wrapped all the gifts my mom had bought. Then I went up the road and wrapped presents for my Aunt Dixie. Then Mom drove me into town and dropped me off at Pop and Grandmama Irene’s house for an afternoon so I could wrap presents for them, too.

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Grandmama pulled everything out of the hall closets and made sure each box was labeled on the outside (so I wouldn’t have to peek inside to see what was what). I laid out the tubes of wrapping paper, the scissors and the tape on the braided rug in their bedroom, right in front of the warm gas logs. I worked along steadily in my own happy place. After a while, Grandmama came in to check on me. When she saw that I had it under control and there was nothing she needed to do, she stretched out across the white coverlet on the four-poster bed.

Like so many things in Grandmama’s house, we kids walked carefully around that bed. And woe be unto you if you so much as laid a hand on or god forbid leaned against the spindle that ran between the footposts. That bed was so old that it had been made by slaves owned by Pop’s side of the family. I had seen Grandmama lie down for a nap before, but never across the bed to chat. She stretched out on her side to watch me with one hand propped under her head. Her feet hung off the side of the bed like a teenager at a slumber party, with her shoes clear of the perfect white chenille spread.

“I sure am glad you like to wrap packages because I surely don’t.” She grinned and bounced her foot. I remember feeling that I needed to be careful, to not break this gentle magic. Grandmama was almost always busy and not much of a chatter. Most every action and word in her world had a POINT. I wanted to keep the conversation going, so I asked, “Did you like to wrap packages when you were my age?”

“Oh, we didn’t have any such as that when I was your age.” (I want to type that as “yo age” because that’s how she talks, not a terminal -r to be found) “For Christmas, we might get a piece of candy and an orange but that was it. Daddy always got us an orange.”

Grandmama was born in 1918, so her teenage years were the dark years of the Depression. Aunt Eula, Grandmama’s older sister by a few years, had come to stand in the doorway. “Irene, remember that year we got an apple AND an orange?” They went on to tell me about life on the farm down along the river, how they each had two dresses–one to wear and one to wash–while I sat there wrapping gifts in shiny paper and tying ribbons.

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Twenty years later, I told that story to Richard and my dad one morning while we were sitting out on the deck in the sunshine. Daddy was born in 1942, but his brothers were 10 and 13 years older, so they were young in the Depression. Their father made a living cutting lumber for furniture makers in Atlanta and business had just about dried up. Nobody had money for furniture. Daddy told us how things got so bad one winter that his father had to leave a guard with the team of mules in the woods so that no one stole the animals for meat. That winter, my Grandfather Joe didn’t know how he was going to pay his hands, much less have anything left to make a little Christmas for Uncle Kenneth and Uncle Charles. Then just a few days before Christmas, he got an order for lumber, and it was enough to, in Daddy’s memory of hearing the story when he was a boy, “pay the hands, buy a little wooden train for Kenneth and Charles, and surprise the family with a bag of oranges.”

These two stories explain why Santa puts an orange in the toe of my kids’ stockings every year. This year, slogging through my own cold Depression, I keep hearing my grandmother saying “Daddy always got us an orange.” I think about how this might be the saddest Christmas of my life because I won’t hear any stories from my dad. He won’t be baking pies or slicing tenderloin for Christmas Eve dinner. He won’t be wearing a red and green tartan buttondown shirt under his flour-covered apron. He won’t make us a bag of oranges to take home from the box Uncle Kenneth sends up from Florida.

Those oranges in my kids’ stockings remind me that our family has had it worse. We’ve lived through some lean times and mean times. Some years are so bad you gotta worry about hungry folks boiling the mule. And some years you get an apple AND an orange.

I am the product of many generations of people who found a way to hold some sweetness, even in the darkest time of the year.

And that is why there will always be an orange in the toe of your stocking, kids.

Make Us Thankful

A Thanksgiving memory: Little Gay, Me, Joe, Beth, Jake...and that's Grant in the front. Mr. Enthusiasm!

Thanksgiving many years ago: Little Gay, Me, Joe, Beth, Jake…and that’s Grant in the front. Mr. Enthusiasm!

My dad had a theory that you could measure how Baptist a person was by counting the number of times they said “Just” while asking the blessing before a big meal. Like this would score pretty high on the Baptist-o-meter:

(with every head bowed and every eye closed)

Lord, we just ask that you just look down on us Lord and just bless this food that is just such a blessing. Just help us remember, Lord, just how very blessed we are to just have what we need. We just praise you Lord….(continue for 12 minutes)

Now, now…to all my Baptist leaning friends, please don’t get your noses out of joint. In our family, we make fun of all peoples, of all faiths, in equal measure. We even did it a little when Grandmama Eunice was alive. But not when she was in earshot.

Speaking of Grandmama Eunice, I think she was the source of the standard blessing that Daddy used: “Lord make us thankful for these and all our many blessings. Bless this food to our bodies and us to your service, Amen.” No matter how much extemporizing the blesser did, they always brought the blessing to a close with these lines.

Over the years, asking the blessing got to be more and more special to Daddy. We all gather up in the kitchen or around the dining room table. Sometimes we hold hands and sometimes we just try to keep the kids in line. (See that just sneaking in there? Raised Baptist!) Daddy would say a few words about how lucky we were to be comfortable in life and the duty we owed to those who weren’t as lucky. His blessings always celebrated our family and the deep love we shared for each other. If it had been an especially tough year for one of us, he would say thanks that it was over and we were all still together. There was the blessing that remembered Richard when he was in the hospital. The blessing that welcomed Brett back home after she got her life straight. Last year, he said a blessing of thanks that he had made it through a bad health scare.

About fifty percent of the time, he’d get choked up. And that led to one of the most enduring stories in our family lore and it’s the thing I’m thinking about as we head towards this first Thanksgiving without Daddy saying the blessing before dinner.

Mr. Enthusiasm strikes again! Grant and Jackson at Callaway Gardens.

Mr. Enthusiasm strikes again! Grant and Jackson at Callaway Gardens.

For a few good years, when the nephews were small, we set aside one autumn weekend to take the whole fam-damn-ily to Callaway Gardens. Piled in together in one big villa, we’d cook and tell stories and laugh and jump in the leaves and let the kids stay up late.

The villa had a long dining table, big enough to hold all of us. Before we sat down to feast on tenderloin from the grill, Daddy asked the blessing. Halfway through, he started to get emotional and took a second to compose himself. All of the adults stayed quiet, but tiny little Grant, who was about three, piped up in a very loud whisper, “Papa’s cryin’ like a BABY!” 

Daddy loved that story. We had a reason to tell it again quite often, pretty much every time we got together.

I don’t know who will ask the blessing this year. Probably Joe, or Brett, maybe even Grant, who is tall and gracious and clever (still). I know we’ll all cry like babies. That’s just the way it’s going to be.

But in the midst of sorrow, may we be thankful for these and all our many blessings. Grief is the price of love.

This picture has nothing to do with the story, but it's my favorite picture of Grant.

This picture has nothing to do with the story, but it’s my favorite picture of Grant.

 

 

Doors and Windows and Corners

You know that old saying, “When one door closes, a window opens?” I feel like that tonight, here at the end of the Dia de los Muertos when the door to the other world is shut and our beloved spirits draw their visit to a close. Well, the door may have closed, but a window opened for me tonight.

Right around dinner time, just as the noodle water was starting to boil, my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number or the strange area code. I could have ignored it but I was kind of in the mood to snap at a telemarketer.

“Is this Ashley?”

“Yes, this is she.” In my most imperious tone, reserved for strangers who call at 7 p.m.

“Well, it’s your old Uncle Kenneth here. How are you doing, honey?” My dad’s middle brother. Joe and Eunice Garrett’s boys: Charles, Kenneth, and Sammy. I haven’t seen Uncle Kenneth in at least 10 years and I don’t think I’ve ever talked to him on the phone. He and Aunt Margaret have lived in southern Florida my whole life, so visits were once a year usually, mostly back when Grandmama Eunice was alive. Every summer, Charles and Kenneth drove their long American sedans up the interstate to Gay. And as soon as they pulled up in Grandmama’s front yard, they’d jump out of their cars and start talking about what kind of time they’d made on the drive.

Kenneth was calling to say we had been on his mind. We talked about his health, and the weather in Miami, and the ages of my children. He corrected me for thinking he was thirteen years older than Daddy–that was Charles, who died back in the 1980s. He told me his birthday, and Daddy’s birthday, then did the math.

And my window opened.

“What was your daddy’s birthday?” I asked. I never met my Grandaddy Joe. He was killed in a car accident a few days before Little Gay was born, almost four years before I came along.

“January 30. He used to tell everyone that he and FDR–Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he was the president then–Daddy told everybody that all the smartest people were born on January 30.”

I get my story-telling from these people. My dad’s death has left a blank yawning abyss between me and all the stories that he never got to tell me about his side of the family. That tiny fact–that my grandfather’s birthday was January 30–completed a story that I’ve been carrying around for almost forty years.

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One cold winter morning when I was about nine or ten, I was already dressed for school and waiting on the living room couch. Once Gay and Joe were ready, Daddy would drive us up the dirt road to the bus stop and we would wait in the warmth of the truck cab instead of out by the highway. Daddy was sitting in his orange chair, putting his boots on. He had paused to stare out the window over my head, into the hard white winter light.

“Today was my Daddy’s birthday. He would have been…” I can’t remember the age Daddy said because at that point in the sentence, he choked up and started to cry. It was the first time I ever remember seeing my dad cry. And now I know it was on January 30.

Uncle Kenneth told me stories about Daddy’s first haircut when he lost his princely curls. He told me about when he and Charles were filling out a Social Security form for J.P., the hired man who stayed with our family for 50 years. J.P. didn’t know what his initials stood for, so Uncle Charles declared him “James Pierpont Strozier.” And J.P. chose his own birthday–the second Sunday in August, because that was when his church had Homecoming. He told me about when their father died and my father wanted to drop out of vet school but his brothers wouldn’t let him. When we were talking about who was a blond and who was a brunette, Uncle Kenneth mentioned his own son, who has passed. We got quiet.

Then he took an old man’s deep breath and said, “Well, Mama always said ‘God won’t let you see around corners.’ And Daddy said, ‘Play the hand you’re dealt.'”

I’m so glad I answered the phone tonight. I saved that strange Florida number under “Uncle Kenneth” in my phone. The door may be closed for the next year, and we can’t see around corners, but he opened a window for me.

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Mi Dia de los Muertos

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.

Altar for Dia de los Muertos, by Jose Luis Silva.

Altar for Dia de los Muertos, by Jose Luis Silva.

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.

Altar for Dia de los Muertos, Jose Luis Silva

Altar for Dia de los Muertos, Jose Luis Silva

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.”

Remembrance Service at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, Maryland

Remembrance Service at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, Maryland

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).

But what?

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.

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“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.

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