Giving Thanks to My Ancestors on Día de Los Muertos
by Jenny Ward McDonald, guest contributor
Last fall the idea to visit the family graveyard came to mind for the first time in ages. Día de Los Muertos seemed like the perfect excuse to make the journey. I allowed life and distance to keep me away, however, and I never went.
I am not Latina, but I did develop a strong appreciation for Mexican culture while studying midwifery on the Texas/Mexico border. When I moved home to Georgia, I kept a piece of Mexico in my heart. Since the first idea to celebrate my ancestors Mexican-style entered my mind last year, the urge had only grown stronger. So as November approached this year, I resolved to do it. I invited my two sisters. One said she’d bake a casserole and we planned to picnic at the cemetery. On October 31st, they both cancelled on me. I was determined, however, and went anyway.
Three generations of my family are buried in a large cemetery near Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Two much-loved babies, my beloved grandfather, my great-grandparents, and my own dear father had been laid to rest there over the last 77 years. Someday soon, I expect that my sweet grandmother will join them.
I made the one-and-a-half hour drive with fall flowers riding shotgun, determined to have something closer to a family reunion than a tearful day of loss. I arrived and found the graves by memory. The decrepit remains of artificial flowers lingered in only one urn. Ancient and bedraggled, I laid them to rest in a trash bag. I greeted my family members as I worked at arranging the flowers I had brought for them — a fall arrangement made mostly of mums.
I sat down at their feet and spoke to them aloud and, assuming they could hear me, caught up with them as you would any friend you haven’t seen in a while. I told them about my children, my husband, and my work. I asked for their help in caring for my ailing grandmother. I explained to my dad that I wasn’t angry with him anymore and forgave him for what I once believed were his parenting failures. A parent now myself, I told him this parenting business is hard! And there is no instruction manual. After all our years of emotional distance, eleven years after his death, I commiserated with him over parenting woes.
I noticed that one grave marker was missing. This was not the typical name and dates; it simply read “Paw Paw.” My mother had placed it at my grandfather’s grave in honor of the special relationship he and I shared. I felt around the grass but couldn’t find it. Had it been stolen? Removed by the cemetery staff? Perhaps the grass had just grown over it. With growing concern, I thrust my car keys into the earth where I thought it would be. It took a few stabs, but I soon felt stony resistance. Using my bare hands, I began pulling away the grass, digging into the mud. Clearly, it had been covered for some time. Again, I pulled out my keys and used them to scrape the dirt out of the engraving. Taking the umbilical cord clamp that has been on my key ring since 2000, I cleaned out the smallest parts of the engraving, reminding me that I am connected to my ancestors just as I once was to my own mother.
I went to my car and searched for a way to further clean up this nearly forgotten stone. Surprised, I found a bottle of water and a towel in the trunk. Using these, I washed all of the family stones. I addressed each person individually as I worked, pleased to find common ground with even the babies and the great-grandfather who had died 31 years before my birth.
For Halloween I had dressed as one of the Day of the Dead skeletons we are so familiar with. I had decorated my braids with fresh chrysanthemums from the yard. I now used these same mums to decorate the graves, spreading them over the ground.
Feeling a deep sense of satisfaction, relief, and connection, I stood back and observed. Tears streaming down my face, satisfied with my work, I bid them adieu and turned to go. Holding my hand up in the sign for “I love you,” I drove past their graves and headed home.
I don’t know if my ancestors are involved with or even aware of my everyday life, but I do know that their efforts helped bring me to where I am in this world right now. I thanked them for this, and realized it felt good to have done something for them. I had cared for my dead and felt more whole for having done so.
Jenny Ward McDonald is a midwife and mother living in west Georgia. Her midwifery training began on the Mexican border and left a lasting imprint on her soul.
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