The older I get, the more I appreciate Día de Muertos.
Years pass, loved ones pass, and I grow to understand more fully the philosophy behind the Day of the Dead.
Holidays can be tough, for years after you’ve lost someone. Memories of the past can come flooding to the surface, and in these moments, you can’t seem to see anything else – except the fact that the loved ones who used to be there with you are no longer around.
Birthdays can be hard, too, for the same reasons. Anniversaries, and new additions to the family. It’s all too easy to be reminded of what it is you’ve lost.
But Day of the Dead is magical.
Here, we do not mourn the losses of our loved ones.
We celebrate life. We share stories. We cook good food and watch monarch butterflies and we sing and we dance.
When we talk about the ones we’ve lost, on other days of the year, sometimes our talk is tinged with pain and sadness.
But during Día de Muertos, we talk about food and life.
- When else would I bring up my father’s love of Carvel ice cream cakes?
- My dad’s whipped pumpkin and chocolate chip pie may be mentioned during the Thanksgiving holiday season, but there’s really no designated time to discuss the fact that my dad, who never drank milk, instead would pour hot cocoa – with marshmallows – over his Wheat Chex cereal for breakfast every morning.
- Who would know to ask me about the fact that my father, like his father before him, would typically not take a single sip of his drink until he had finished the entirety of his lunch or dinner?
- When is the time to share the fact that my dad strongly preferred Burger King over McDonald’s, and loved eating at Friendly’s when we lived in New York?
The answer is, of course, on Day of the Dead.
I might not be making ofrendas and visiting graveyards at night (not yet, at least), but I’m still building a sort of digital altar, watching the butterflies, and telling my stories.
The more time passes, the more likely that our memories will slowly start to fade away. Wading through those memories on a regular basis can be a difficult task, when you know there’s a very good chance that it will lead to tears and sadness.
But if we can put that positive spin on our recollections, the way we do on Day of the Dead, then maybe it won’t be so bad.
And so, my father:
- Who loved to travel, cook, take pictures, and listen to music.
- Who would wake my sister from her naps by playing “Chop Suey!” by System of a Down on his stereo system.
- Who would drive too fast and park entirely too close to the edge of the mountain roads in California.
- Who took us trick-or-treating in a Sacramento shopping mall in the mid-90s.
- Who would take us on surprise trips to theme parks like Six Flags.
- Who, when I was briefly vegan, would set aside a small bowl of steamed potatoes for me, so I could add my own fake milk and fake butter.
Without a word.
My dad was quiet and introverted. He showed his love through actions, not phrases.
Sometimes it was hard for me to relate to him – especially when my autism was already making me awkward and socially at a loss.
But no matter how many years pass, no matter how many specific memories I forget, I will always remember how happy his presence made me feel.
That happy feeling is now all wrapped up in the imagery of monarch butterflies, marigold flowers, pan de muerto, calacas and calaveras, and the bold colors of all the cute little Day of the Dead items my Mexican mother sometimes buys for me.
I didn’t grow up with Día de Muertos, and my father was from Puerto Rico, but living in San Antonio – the last city he lived in – for the past decade or so has given me a great appreciation for the holiday.
I’ve cried a lot of tears over the past few months, so I am more than ready for a change.
So tonight, let’s say a toast.
To life, to love, to family, to friends, to good food, and great memories, and one amazing shared experience that is celebrated all across the world.
To anyone else observing Día de Muertos this year, I hope it brings you peace, joy, and happiness.