Every family deals with death in different ways. I did not know this before I got married. I thought every family talked easily, laughed, cried, and remembered the dead at the dinner table. Then I married a man whose father had died unexpectedly. Suddenly. Horribly. And though it happened years before, the grief was still fresh. Raw. I mentioned him once at a family dinner and it was as if I had detonated a bomb.
So when my daughter was born, I tried in a gentle way to incorporate the memory of the dead into our everyday life by borrowing the Mexican ritual of setting up an altar of remembrance to the beloved. This is the poem I wrote that year:
Days of the Dead
I lay out plates of food for the dead
and circle their pictures there, to welcome
back spirits in this cold November air.
I show you your relations, and you wave
like you’ve seen them before, and I ask you
how they are doing, is my uncle
still drinking, is that one still crying,
does this one still like being a nun?
You smile at me, silly, as if to say how human
I am, as if you cannot believe that I
do not know that we are more
than all this, once we are dead.
I pause, shake my head,
try to imagine an alcoholic without his habit,
a nun without hers, a depressed woman
happy and away from her bed.
And then I see that what would remain
would be the mystery that makes people
love a baby, so full of hunger, dying to be fed,
our link back to the beginning, the needful
beat of being that goes on going
long after we all are dead.
Gradually, as the years passed, I came to see the wisdom in the way my husband honored his father’s memory in his own quiet way, and he began to see that telling stories was a way to make the memories come alive in our children. His mother, too, enjoyed telling us stories about “the homeplace.” I wrote this poem one year when we had all gathered there, in the mountains in Virginia. The girls were laughing and playing around the family graves, and my mother-in-law’s face was filled with joy.
My mother-in-law at the family graveyard
Candle red geraniums fall to the firmament at her feet
below her grandparents’ graves. Her eyes
are shut, lips pursed, arms up like a child,
ready for a kiss from the dead, her grandma’s
lemon hands on her cheeks, squeezing like a rose.
And further north, her parents’ graves,
framed by azaleas, looping pink like
their arms underground, waiting
for their daughter to enter the dance.
At the end of the bed lies her husband,
her name quietly etched by his, and she
frowns, no kisses this time, only patience,
heavy shoulders, held by her son,
as she begins to sink bravely under, down.
One day I will join her, with my husband,
the next stone beneath the trees.
I will give leave — and leaves — to my children,
and then I, too, will be gone.
What this poem — and the one that follows — captures for me is the way that talking about the dead, visiting the family graves, and honoring even our painful memories is a way to admit to ourselves how very short this life is. It has helped me over the years, as a mother, to pull up the extra patience during tantrums and doldrums and moods — those of my children and those of my own. These things last such a brief time!
Years before your birth, I walked
on rocks, burnt black and bathed
in summer rain, still steaming.
I was alone. I had left your father
that summer, still dug in drought,
and drove across this land, my home.
I was searching for the poetry
that would be me. I found it
in the rocks, sketched hard by bone,
family pictures that lasted over
a thousand years. Hand, face, cat,
moon: what we remember of each other,
what I brought you here to see,
what I will never forget, will keep
giving you long after I am gone.
We may not allow it to cross our conscious awareness very often, but our children will one day be remembering us after we are gone.
Will they remember the tantrum you throw while untangling the tree lights — or the way you let them help decorate in their own way?
Will they remember the gifts you go into debt to buy — or the stories you take the extra time to tell?
Will they remember the new recipe you try — the one that takes two days and trips to four different stores to make — or the fact that you were relaxed and laughed with them at dinner?
Let us pause now, before the rush and busyness of this holiday season, to take a moment and reflect on what kinds of memories we want to be leaving behind.
I invite you to write a piece (poetry, fiction, or essay) that reflects upon your family’s ways of grieving the death of family members and/or remembering those who have passed on. Please email your submission of 800-1000 words to birthingmotherwriter[AT]gmail[dot]com by November 13th. Be sure to put “Birthing the Mother Writer: 1” in the subject line, and place the text of your submission in the body of the email. By sending in your submission, you agree that your piece, if chosen for publication, may receive suggestions for revision, and you also agree to revise and submit a new version for publication.