Day of the Dead

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.

Now that day has become the prompt to assemble my November 1st Day of the Dead table. I have a colourful table cloth – the printed pattern is of course one of dancing skeletons. Skeleton candles. I buy marigolds. I take out a favourite photo of each of the loved ones in my life who’ve died. And then I choose an object that is linked in my mind to a memory of that person. For my dear friend Marlene – a book. For dad his measuring tape and a box of snuff. For mum, a piece of knitting she was in the middle of, for Joe – his guitar tuner and a cigar, for Ilundi a painted stone.

I love this memory table.

And now something else has changed. I am studying a Leadership Embodiment practice with Wendy Palmer and Karen White. We are asked to imagine who is our posse? Who are the ones who’ve shaped us, who have our backs? We’re invited to walk tall with them supporting us from behind.

That’s so easy for me. I think of my memory table. These loved ones have my back. I walk taller and stronger because of their presence in my life.

The marigolds are wilting…time to put things away. I look forward to 2020 – I have a special treat lined up. I will be in Mexico.