Saturday, September 26, 2009

Día de los Muertos

Many moons ago, when I was an undergraduate (it was many moons ago, but not as many as it should have been if I hadn't quit college to move to the desert and gone on vision quest for five years. Totally not the point), I took a class called Death and Dying. Pretty standard prerequisite class. I think it was in my department, Religion, but may not have been.

Of course, it was fascinating, and about the way different cultures and religions deal with death, end of life issues, depression, loss and, of course, grief. One of our projects was to write a paper about a death we experienced in your family, or to interview your parents about end of life issues, living wills, and get them talking about what they want for their death. It was a way to begin a conversation that is difficult to have, especially for undergraduates navigating this new freedom and independence, but then really you turn the conversation into a deeper understanding of your own relationship with death. I think we were to touch upon culture, religion, philosophy and psychology. And so, I visited my mother, plopped a tape recorder next to her, and began asking her questions. I plied her with wine.

My mother with wine is legendary in my family. Many of my cousins actually used to bring their dates/potential future husbands/interests over to my mother with a bottle of wine, and let the wild rumpus start. Oh, it always started benign, questions about their job, their family...she is very open, accepting and loving until she turns into Black Katharine, as my sister refers to her two glass of wine persona. To me, it is hilarious, but I can see how intimidating it might be to have a small Panamanian woman psychoanalyzing you and telling you that you do not have the right disposition for marrying her niece, even if you have only been dating for two weeks. She once told my cousin's date that if she kept wearing those white dresses and getting all Sharon Stone at Panamanian parties, people were going to think she is a slut. At that moment, my sister, my closest cousin, and I all stood up at the same time, grabbed our wine, and left the room with a sort of deer-in-headlights look. "Oh, I cannot wait to hear the fallout of that one." Part of what my mother said she loved about Sam was the first time we were all sitting around with some wine, and my mother started in, Sam leaned back in his chair, smiled, and said, "Bring it on, Linda. I will answer any question you want. I love your daughter, and I can take it."

Still, my death and dying project ended up being one of the most amazing conversations I have had with my mother. Perhaps the wine gave my mother an ease to the emotions and the memories, or she had been waiting to talk about her family when we were ready to begin asking questions. I had never asked my mother about the death of her father. I was six or seven, I think, and she left for two weeks alone to Panama. My sister, father and I stayed home. I have vague recollections of crooked braids and dresses with sneakers. But it never occurred to me to find out what her experience was like. I don't really think it occurred to me to ask her about her family much at all before the paper brought it up. What I loved about our conversation was the rolling way she talked about her family and grief, and how it interspersed with her childhood. It began my fascination with my family history, collecting the stories of my mother and her sisters, my grandparents and my grandparent's parents, and my lineage.

My mother grew up across the street from a cemetery where she spent long afternoons with her brother, sister and a slingshot. This past August, visiting her childhood home again, I was reminded how far she had come from her roots. Her father was a tailor, and her mother stayed home with the eleven living children, in what was at the time a two bedroom house. She is second youngest. I have seen one picture of my mother as a child. She was in a white dress, kneeling in the dust out in front of her house with her brother next to her, and her two older sisters standing behind her. She looks exactly as she looks in her adulthood. Beautiful. Strong. With a laugh in her eyes. My eyes.

This post is rambling, so bear with me...part of what fascinated me about my mother's story of her father's death was the funeral rituals. Panamanians, like much of Latin America, lays the body in the home for a number of days where mourners come to sit and pray the rosary together. On the day of the funeral, a procession walked to the cemetery from the house with the body. I think things have changed now, but at the time, they walked. For a week following, rosary is done every night in the home where you eat only certain foods. A soup. Hot chocolate or coffee. Some pan dulces. After the week was up, and the soul returned to heaven, the mourning period continued for a year. In our conversation, she then mentioned returning home for Día de los Muertos the following year, and remembering her father with the rest of her sisters. One thing I remember her telling me was my grandfather's drinking buddies came drunk in the evening, and sat around his grave telling stories, and pouring Seco into the is an image I have always loved.

This year, Mother Henna is hosting a Día de los Muertos art swap, and I have signed up to participate. I am beyond excited to explore this part of my history, especially as I mourn my own daughter this year, my father-in-law and my grandmother, and, of course, my own abuelo, who I never really knew in real life, but whose stories I have been collecting for years.

So stayed tuned: On October 31st, I will be posting the art I created and the art I received, and on November 2nd, Panamanians celebrate that day, I will post my own Day of the Dead art. I think Kara has some more openings for this art swap, so check out the link to participate. Also, taking some suggestions for Día de los Muertos art subjects, especially as it relates to babyloss. I have quite a few ideas already, just a matter of sitting down with some brushes, and getting to work.


  1. You are such an amazing story teller Angie, a whole new dimension of your mother and your family history came alive through this post. I can't wait to see the art you create.

  2. This is your book, right here Angie. I could read your family stories and about your own adventures all day.

    I wish I was an artist SO much right now. I would LOVE to be part of the Day of the Dead fest. xx

  3. oh, i was so excited to read this post, angie. i've been thinking about day of the dead celebrations a lot lately, especially as fall is in full swing here. i am already planning some special rituals for our family, some of them pinched from kara actually - i love how deeply she connects art and ritual.

    i wish i had time/talent enough to participate in the swap this year! i look forward to seeing your work, angie. xo

  4. Wow, Angie, thank you so much for sharing this post with us! What an amazing gift to be given -- to prompt you to ask your family about death and dying and loved ones. Funny to think that for many of us it took a homework assignment to make us ask,isn't it. For me it was reading the book MotherLine -- and one of her weekly suggestions, I think, was to interview your grandmothers. Anyway, so thrilled to have you doing the Day of the Dead heART with us! Thanks for sharing the link here, too, as we do still have 5 spots open as of today! k-

  5. I have to agree with afteriris. Write a book, pretty please (bats eyelashes pleadingly)

    I love the fact that your mother turns into Black Katharine. I'm quite tempted to try and adopt that persona myself. And I love Sam's reaction to her two glasses of wine transformation.

    Can't wait to see what you create for the Día de los Muertos swap.

  6. That sounds amazing Ang! I wish I could commit to it, I really do.

    I'm excited to see your painting, and the one you recieve..
    Would love to hear about your wanderings in the desert sometime ;)

    XO Much love,

  7. You are an amazing storyteller, Angie. I loved this fascinating glimpse in to your family life. I also loved Sam's answer to your mother's question. I think I like Sam! I remember seeing lots of babylost mamas doing things for the Day of the Dead last year. Looking forward to what you creat for this year.

  8. i agree are a captivating writer/storyteller. i want to read more about your family...and can't wait to see your art. last year dia de los muertos was a powerful time for me. we created a shrine for our babies at a park that is adorned with amazingly beautiful altars and and shrines. but i think ours was the first for babies and kids.

  9. Angie, I have been reading here for quite a while, but never before saw this post. I arrived on it today for Blogger Bingo. I think its great where you said "What I loved about our conversation was the rolling way she talked about her family and grief" this ability to tell stories is obviously something your mother passed down to you.
    I was struck too by the year of mourning. Here, it seems, that people started saying "move on" right after Peyton died, my neighbor actually told me it was time to move on the morning after her death, it is wonderful to hear about a culture that embraces the process of grieving. You are a great writer, and an amazing storyteller. I am glad that Blogger Bingo brought me to this post, to another one of your stories, and to a totally different understanding of Dia de los Muertos.


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