I am so grateful for the November 1st Mexican festival of the Day of the Dead in my life.
It’s shifted how I am with my dead loved ones.
I was brought up Catholic, and my Czech mum had these regular sad days where she’d light a candle and say whose anniversary of dying it was. And then I married into a Jewish family and found a similar candle ritual lit with sadness, the heart remembering the pain of loss
Then twenty years ago I was fortunate enough to meet up with friends to walk in the giant redwood forests in California. Their good friend, a doctor, worked as a paediatrician in a community health care centre in Oaklands.
On the eve of the Day of the Dead we were invited to accompany him to a celebration taking place in a community centre in a neighbourhood in which most residents were of Mexican origin. That evening changed my life.
Dance music announced the location of the venue – we didn’t need a map! Then the delicious food smells. The “dance floor” was the parking area of community centre. Inside the house all the shelves had been cleared to make space for memorabilia of the departed whose lives were being remembered in a celebratory manner. There’d be a photo of the person, maybe a packet of seeds to acknowledge they’d been a great gardener, the pipe they’d love to smoke, a CD cover of the music they’d most enjoyed.
In Mexico the celebratory location is different – the festivities take place in the cemetery. Garlands of marigolds create a bright orange backdrop. People often make a colourful paper mache skeletons depicting the dead person in action. The cemetery is crowded and noisy
But what to do when you no longer live in that locale, when you family lives in a diaspora?
As child of immigrants and myself a migrant the Oaklands occasion taught me how I could mark this occasion wherever I might be living in the world.
The night of October 29th is the night I go to sleep remembering that this is the night in Johannesburg on which before dawn I will have received a phone call from my mother in England telling me that my father just died from a heart attack.