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Remembrance of lives past

(article, Caroline Cummins)

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Every October, for the past few years, I've wanted to set up a Day of the Dead altar. You've probably seen these altars before: the annual displays of photos of loved ones who have died, decked out with flowers, candles, and edible treats. They're set up for November 1 and 2, the days just after Halloween, by families throughout Latin America and by Latinos living in North America.

[%image feature-image float=right width=400 caption="The author's Day of the Dead altar."]

I'm not religious, much less Catholic, although I suppose you could call growing up attending the neighborhood Episcopal church about as Catholic as you can get in the U.S. without actually being one. No, the idea came from family friends who used to live in Mexico; to this day, they arrange a Day of the Dead display in their Berkeley home on a sideboard in their dining room. Like keeping chickens, seeing friends do it made me think, "Gee, I could do that, too."

These particular friends are not, as it happens, Latino; he's a WASP, she's Jewish. Which made the whole thing seem all the more accessible to me, another one of those ho-hum WASPs. You don't have to be Latino? You don't have to be Catholic? Well, OK then. Why not?


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The sad truth is that, as I get older, more and more people pass out of my life. A good friend died, unexpectedly, a few years ago. My last surviving grandparent died a year or so later. My father-in-law died last year. Another close friend's father died just a few months ago. 

These are people I don't want to forget, and assembling their photos in a little tableau once a year — in the autumn, when the year is dying as well — seemed like a nice way to remember them.

Granted, my altar is not a typical Day of the Dead altar. Yes, I used a traditional woven cloth from Guatemala as the base — a present from another couple, the husband Guatemalan, the wife American — and topped it with little miniature skeleton figurines belonging to my father-in-law made specifically for the Day of the Dead. (My father-in-law was an anthropology professor specializing in the indigenous peoples of the Yucatán, and he bought the figurines on one of his many sojourns in Mexico.) 

So far, however, there are no flowers, no candles, no sugar skulls, no mugs of the thick, sweet, corn-based drink known as atol. This, after all, is a WASP altar; there are photos of my dead pets in this mishmash, for Pete's sake. I thought about leaving them out, and then I stuck 'em in. Because, dang it, I really loved the Labrador retriever and orange tabby we had when I was a kid.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Mexican Day of the Dead miniatures, collected by the author's father-in-law."]

My husband pointed out that, by setting up the altar in the middle of October, I was getting a big head start on the holiday. But, hey, if the supermarkets are already hawking Halloween candy by September, I might as well get my seasonal display going early, too.

This is my version of the holiday, tailored to my preferences. So, no, when el Día de los Muertos rolls around this year, I won't be wearing a skull mask, or painting or dressing myself to look like a skeleton. And I won't be making sugar skulls (too creepy) or festooning my altar with marigolds (too messy). Us WASPs like our rituals a little more indirect. 

But I might make and eat a loaf of pan de muerto,_ an eggy bread traditionally baked for the holiday. And I will probably light a candle or two. It gets dark this time of year, you know.

p(bio). Caroline Cummins is Culinate's managing editor.

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