Cada Muerto Tiene Su Día

October 11, 2008

My mother had a peculiar sense of humor, to say the least, and I have inherited this quirk.  With her many years in San Antonio, Mom’s funny bone sometimes developed a Tex-Mex Spanglish twist to add to the puns and occasional bawdyness.  I can still hear her saying: “Que hora es — Poor Kay!”

As I think over this last year since Mom’s final illness, I feel a stronger sense of her presence than ever.  Although there is a deep sense of regret when I think of those days and weeks in strange hospitals — sometimes with stranger patients in the next bed — the grief has passed, giving way to peace.  Sitting here, writing as she once wrote in her newsletters years ago, her violets in the window, pets on her chairs, the birds and wildlife she loved outside the door, it seems like she is here with me.

This isn’t to ignore my father.  It’s more that throughout my life, Dad had typically been at a certain distance.  Either physically, off flying in Turkey or Korea or somewhere, or later simply off on his own separate life.  (Classic gay formula: Absent father, overprotective mother…)  There was a short time, maybe four years, that I got to know him before my parents’ marriage declined.  Then Dad was gone about his business, back now and then for a few cameo guest appearances, and then he was further gone in a fog of health issues culminating in dementia.  He wasn’t quite there.  He isn’t quite gone, if that makes sense.

But back to Spanglish, my title is typical of one of Mom’s jokes.  As San Antonians, every year we saw El Día de los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead that marks what other Catholic cultures know as the Feast of All Saints and the Feast of All Souls.  Yes, this “day” is celebrated over two days; no matter.

When we first came to the city in 1969, we lived by Kelly Air Force Base.  I remember going with Mom to the H.E.B. supermarket at Las Palmas Shopping Center.  Across the street from the enormous San Fernando Cemetery No. 2., this landmark was once home to a Joske’s department store where she bought my school clothes.  Every year, traffic jams developed in the streets around there as devotees came to pay tribute and tend the resting places of the muertos, the beloved dead.

Our Air Force life was marked by repetition.  We left San Antonio after a year, coming back in 1972, leaving again, then coming back to stay for good when Dad retired in 1975.  With each round, unknown to me at the time, San Antonio was becoming my home town.  For years I’ve said that I had none, that I came from everywhere.  Now I know better.

Also with each round, the muertos came back.  Ever present in the lives of Mexicans, seen in countless calaveras and calacas, the dead evoke memories and devotion.  In the United States, the custom has spread far beyond South Texas and the border states, but outside Mexico and other Latin countries, the images seem most powerful here.

I’m planning a remembrance for Mom and Dad.  He died first in July, she followed in October.  With their over thirty years in San Antonio, it seems appropriate to me to commemorate them according to the custom, but with a few twists.

So I’ve read the Wikipedia pages on the Day of the Dead and the calacas.  As noted, calacas

…are generally depicted as joyous rather than mournful figures. They are often shown wearing festive clothing, dancing, and playing musical instruments to indicate a happy afterlife. This draws on the Mexican belief that no dead soul likes to be thought of sadly, and that death should be a joyous occasion.

With the celebrations themselves

…many people believe that during the Day of the Dead, it is easier for the souls of the departed to visit the living. People will go to cemeteries to communicate with the souls of the departed, and will build private altars, containing the favorite foods and beverages, and photos and memorabilia, of the departed. The intent is to encourage visits by the souls, so that the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them. Celebrations can take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed.

That makes a lot of sense to me, and it sounds like something Mom and Dad would both appreciate.

I don’t know if I’ll get the traditional marigolds.  Maybe I’ll opt for the blue irises that my sister always says Mom loved, or maybe I’ll look for some Texas yellow roses.  Instead of the pan de muerto, I’ll look at H.E.B. for pan dulce, the not-so-sweet pastries that Mom used to buy at a Mexican bakery.  There should be a cup of black coffee for Mom, and later in the day, a Lone Star Beer or a shot of Scotch for Dad.

They would approve.

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4 Responses to “Cada Muerto Tiene Su Día”

  1. Zorya Says:

    Sounds lovely, Bob. I’ll be remembering them and Jesse on Samhain. Mom told me about the irises when we moved her into Air Force Village – that is why I would send them to her for holidays.

    I would also send a Mexican coffee that she liked called “Spirit of the Aztecs” from CoffeeAM. She had mentioned to me how she had liked a type of New Orleans coffee that had chicory in it – I had finally found some (New Orleans Chicory Blend from the same place) but by then she was in the hospital for her last illnesses so I never sent her any. I may try some when I order again and see what it was that made chicory coffee special. 🙂

  2. Liz Says:

    Of course since Mom also liked puns (sometimes) you could also find her some “Mum’s”. Of course she’s had quite a variety of flowers in her garden over the years so she would probably be happy with any of many varieties (except maybe lilies.) She used to have the gladiolas over on the east side of the house, and the rose bushes in various places.

  3. Ray Says:

    Mom also loved marigolds. I remember as a toddler helping her water the marigolds and geraniums in the backyard garden in Fairfield.


  4. […] year I wrote about how I’d grown up with the tradition of El Día de los Muertos – the Day of the […]


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