The Washerwoman’s Genes

October 30, 2006

Day of the Dead

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 8:59 am

On the car radio, Chef Jim’s show came on; his guest was discussing memorializing of the dead in Chinese culture. In particular, the Dragon Boat festival celebrates the attempted rescue of an ancient nobleman who threw himself into the river in despair over a dynastic shift. Sticky rice is wrapped in bamboo packages and thrown in the water to feed his spirit, while the boats race futilely to abort his suicide.

I was driving to the craft shop to scare up some preservation aids: acid-free paper, polypropylene photo sleeves, archival quality this and that. The world is yellow and saffron and tangerine as clouds of leaves diffuse from high above us into the middle air where we live and on down to the ground. My part of the county seemingly has millions of trees—-my yard alone has fifty—and therefore some billions of leaves are dancing through our peripheral vision.

I slid into the right lane to leave the bypass for a smaller road, but had to pull in as a cortege of cars, purple stickers on the rear windows, lights blinking, processed in the local lane. Slowed to a majesty, seeming hooded and private, the cars moved as one unit: a ritual as old as the Ford, as old as the horse and wagon, as old as feet, really, I suppose, as old as grief.

Another radio guest, a restauranteur, discussed her months of preparations for the Mexican feast of the Day of the Dead—or days, first one for the angelita, the little angels who have passed on, and the next for adults. Originally an Aztec celebration going back to antiquity, it became linked to All Souls Day by missionaries in the fifteenth century and now is celebrated in the fall. In Mexico, people decorate the cemeteries; candles and marigolds are spread to help light the way so the dead can find their families; picnics of special foods are spread, including “Day of the Dead” bread and sugared treats, even skulls made of candy, and a hot corn-chocolate drink similar to cocoa. Home altars are also stocked with food and flowers as people beckon the spirits and honor their significance. It is a circle of life celebration, not one of mourning.

I turned on to another secondary road and drove past the Catholic cemetery—it’s so big you can hardly see any graves beyond the expanses of lawn at its margins—and the cortege had U-turned and was coming back down to turn into the cemetery gate. Someone’s bones were going in the ground. Chef Jim’s last guest gave instructions on how to make a chocolate spider out of melted chocolate, chow main noodles and rice crispy cakes.

And at Michael’s, I lucked out: there was a 40%-off sale on archival memory books.

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