October has always been my favorite month in Atlanta, primarily because of optimal weather—lots of sunshine, mild temperatures, low humidity. As a child, I was always more excited for Halloween than for my birthday, which, in midsummer, was always anticlimactic on a school schedule.
Years later, when I started studying Spanish, I first learned of the rich tradition of El día de los muertos. At first, picnics on graveyards and altars of skeleton-shaped cookies perturbed my American sensibilities. Better insight, however, is the perspective of Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, who distinguishes between what classical anthropology terms “ancestral worship” and what she describes as “ancestor kinship”—that El día de los muertos exemplifies “ongoing relationship” with one’s elders. More importantly, now that I have experienced the deaths of loved ones, I appreciate the kinship via El día de los muertos. None of my grandparents are currently living—one died while I was in high school, and ten years later, the remaining three in the span of six months.
All of a woman’s ova (millions at birth—seems excessive, but clearly nature values perpetuation) are present in utero. Often we tend to think of existence beginning at conception, but, actually, we existed before we existed because part of all of us was present in the wombs of our maternal grandmothers. Our existence began during the gestation of our mothers. Conceiving my mother also conceived me, yet unmanifested, in both idea and biology. The blood, the struggle, the ecstasy that created my mother also created me. She (and the ovum that eventually became me) entered the world the day after El día de los muertos.
My mother and I are alike in that we had stronger bonds with our maternal grandmothers than with our mothers. Her maternal grandmother, Santa (yes, her real name), died when my mother was fourteen. On the fiftieth anniversary of her death, my mother and I were at the graveside in rural New York, and for the first my mother shared a dream she had soon after Santa died. Five decades later, the details were still vivid. Though we were there in August, the visit was an appropriate ritual for our own día de los muertos.
When I was born, my maternal grandmother was elated at my name—not just for Santa, but her own name, Stelle. She bought an ‘S’ pendant soon after my birth and wore it until her health deteriorated near the end of her life, when extended hospital stays necessitated its removal.
I have had many mothers, from different cultures and continents. (Worth mentioning, of course, is the great Mother, who has many names: Mother Earth, Mother Nature, Pachamama, Bharat Mata.) Two live in Japan—Kumiko and Shibamama. My relationship with Kumiko was more formal at first. Because she had seniority at the school where we worked, I called her Ota-sensei (her family name, plus the honorific for “teacher”). Over time, she became much more of a mother than a colleague, taking considerable time to monitor my development at the school, as well as teach me Japanese language and etiquette. She introduced me to sado (tea ceremony), one of the most powerful Zen rituals I have ever experienced. Eventually I started using her given name (also because we share that initial).
“Shibamama” (her name to everyone) is a tongue-in-cheek reference to mama-san, slang for the woman who manages a brothel. In my case, she was a genuine mother, who always fed me on my weekend visits and helped me navigate the subtleties of Japanese culture. And she began on our first meeting, abandoning typical Japanese formality despite the massive language barrier at the time. As our communication improved, no question was too awkward or disrespectful, and she tolerated my frequent confusion and curiosity with endless patience.
Another bonus mother is one of my favorite college professors, an outspoken and affectionate chicana. Our kinship was not unique among her students, but strong enough that another student called me “Mini-Maíz” in reference to her (inspired by the Austin Powers movies.)
Profesora Maíz constantly shared her own muse and kindred spirit, Frida Kahlo. I encountered both of them, powerfully autonomous women, when my own self-esteem had not yet developed. Over the years, they have inspired me to have a stronger sense of self, via their actions and their art.
Frida Kahlo, by extension of my professor, became an artistic mother figure—appropriate, given that she desperately wanted to have children. Like many, her creative offspring are her children. Notably, she shares initials with my biological mother. And her full name shares a first name with my chicana mother: Magdalena.
For many years I only considered time linearly, until Profesora Maíz encouraged me to live it spirally. Past and present are not necessarily so distant. Though circumstances and dynamics change over time, what I know from them is still current. Kumiko taught me the beauty of stillness, silence, and emptiness. Shibamama, like Magdalena and Frida, reminded me to be self-ish—meaning being like one’s self.
Likewise, death can be an ending in the past, but just as much can be a transition relevant in the present. The knowledge and lessons evolve over time, as do I. Though I never knew him in my own adulthood, my grandfather taught me the bliss of silliness at any age. He died more than half my life ago, but I still feel his presence as strongly and easily now as I did when he was alive, in part because I strive to live in the childlike wonder he embodied. And also because I have his smile:
So I see him frequently.
A celebration of the dead equally celebrates the living. Now I find rituals from El día de los muertos not only comforting, but appropriate and logical. I have altars with photos and relics from all those with whom I commune on this holiday—when I sustain my ongoing relationships with my family, living and dead, biological and otherwise. My past with them is still in my present, in the spiral of time. I remember that death begets life—communion with the former more strongly connects me to the latter.
SK © 2011