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Enabling the Dead: A Gringa's Day of the Dead Altar

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It's One Big Happy Family season here at This Writer's Life. In celebration of the book's paperback release I have asked a number of the writers from "One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk About Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Polyamory, Househusbandry, Single Motherhood, and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love," to reflect upon how things have changed (or remained the same) in their own lives since they wrote their essays over a year ago. Further, I've also asked various writers I admire to discuss their wild, messy, loving, non-traditional families as well. Below, Gina Hyams talks about her happy family:

Enabling the Dead: A Gringa's Day of the Dead Altar

It was my great good fortune to be living in Mexico when my father died twelve years ago. Mexicans not only accept the inevitability of death, they embrace its power as being essential to the fabric of life. As Octavio Paz wrote in The Labyrinth of Solitude, "The Mexican is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love." For them, dying isn't fatal; it's part of the continuum of time and space. They celebrate Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, an exuberant fiesta for the dead.

My charming vicious Jewish Buddhist poet artist father passed away at age 85. He'd endured five heart attacks and was an alcoholic, so his death wasn't exactly a surprise. It was, however, profoundly discombobulating. Losing a parent, no matter how complicated the relationship, can't help but turn one's world upside down. Upon word of his death, I remember wandering the cobblestone streets of San Miguel de Allende wondering why people weren't remarking on my missing limb.

I'd long admired the elaborate Day of the Dead ofrendas (altars) that Mexican families construct both at home and in cemeteries to honor their ancestors. Adorned with orange marigold blossoms, candles, photos, favorite foods of the deceased, candy skulls, and other symbolic items, the vibrant mix of colors, smells, flavors, and potent nostalgia are meant to lure and guide the spirits back to earth for a family reunion. Offerings are made of things that especially pleased the dead in life--tequila, rhinestones earrings, silly comic books--so that their souls may briefly delight in these pleasures once more.

As much as I loved Mexican culture, I was not the sort of gringa who dressed like Frida Kahlo or who hired an indigenous shaman to purify her casa. With my father's passing, though, I knew that my days as an expat Day of the Dead spectator were over. I wanted to celebrate the holiday in an authentic way, so decided to honor my dad with yellow roses instead of traditional marigolds and give him cinnamon toast and vodka rather than tamales and tequila.

I assembled the altar on a fireplace mantle with my then four-year-old daughter. In the middle, we placed a black and white photograph of my father opening an umbrella in Paris. In it, he looks full of life--intrepid and romantic--as he'd like to be remembered and how I'd prefer to remember him. We sprinkled confetti, lit votive candles, and artfully arranged a bunch of Mexican wrestler toys that I thought would make him laugh. When it came time for me to pour him a shot of vodka, though, I couldn't do it. At the core of my being, I didn't want to see my father drunk, be he dead or alive. I refused to enable him. He got water.

Later, I asked a Mexican friend what she would do if her father had been an alcoholic. Would she give him tequila for Day of the Dead? She replied that she would, because offerings are about what the dead would want, not what the living desire. Still, I couldn't do it. To give my father's spirit even a metaphorical drink would require a level of forgiveness that I couldn't muster. It would feel degrading, be a ceding of control. My altar was my party and I'd deny my dad booze if I wanted to.

Each of the dozen years since my father died, I've constructed a Day of the Dead altar with my family. It now stretches six feet across a windowsill in our Massachusetts farmhouse and, along with my dad, honors my grandparents and those of my husband, our three dead brothers, my husband's father, and our beloved lost cat and guinea pig.

We look forward to celebrating Day of the Dead. The ritual isn't about grief and solemnity; it's about remembering and feeling close to the dead, no matter how flawed they may have been. With or without alcohol, our altar is as close to unconditional love as my family's going to get.

The process of consciously and conscientiously making a memorial altar is remarkably life affirming. It's to proclaim to the world in three-dimensional space that you loved your people while they were living and you still love them now that they're gone. By honoring our loved one's spirits in living color, and sharing their legacies with our children, we nourish a sense of continuity. We are all much less alone.

Gina Hyams is an author and editor who specializes in mysterious and confounding subjects, such as pie, nannies, extraterrestrial encounters, the history of incense, folk art, facials, pink palapas, death, and room service. Her books include the bestselling travel-design titles, In a Mexican Garden: Courtyards, Pools, and Open-Air Living Rooms and Mexicasa: The Enchanting Inns and Haciendas of Mexico, as well as Pacific Spas: Luxury Getaways on the West Coast, Day of the Dead Box and Incense: Rituals, Mystery, Lore -- all published by Chronicle Books. She is also co-editor of the anthology, Searching for Mary Poppins: Women Write About the Relationship Between Mothers and Nannies (Hudson Street Press and Plume, divisions of Penguin U.S.A.), which won a 2007 NAPPA Honors Award (the National Parenting Publications Awards for Parenting Resources). Her "Pie Contest in a Box: Everything You Need to Host a Pie Contest" will be published by Andrews McMeel spring 2011. Raised in San Francisco, she now lives in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts with her husband, Dave Barrett, and daughter, Annalena. For more about her work, see www.ginahyams.com.

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