Today has been a busy day since Día de los Muertos is also my youngest son’s birthday. We’ve been celebrating with him and preparing to celebrate again with family tomorrow, but I also took time to set up our ofrenda over the past couple days.
This year marks a turning point for me culturally because I included many of my own loved ones on our ofrenda. Last year I actually added my paternal grandfather, but I did so hesitantly.
I say “hesitantly” because as much as I admire the holiday and feel it’s a good way to remember Carlos’s loved ones, I hadn’t felt comfortable remembering my own loved ones. Originally I thought, well, this is a holiday originating with indigenous beliefs mixed with Catholic, and being that my father’s side of the family is Jewish and my mother’s side of the family is Protestant, it just doesn’t make sense to include my family. However, with each passing year I realized that my hesitance was not truly about the mixing of religions – my hesitance was actually an Anglo-American belief so deeply ingrained that it was difficult for me to recognize – and that belief is that remembering loved ones is something painful, sad, fearful and unpleasant.
When I added my paternal grandfather to the ofrenda last year, it wasn’t an easy thing. I chose my favorite photo of him, one I took myself when I was probably no older than eight. I still remember the moment I took it. He gave me the camera, a Kodak Instamatic, I think it was. He showed me how to load the film, snap a photo, and he set me free. I ran around my grandparents’ house in New York photographing everything. At one point I followed my grandpa out to the driveway. He was wearing one of his signature newsboy caps. “Hey Grandpa,” I said, “Let me take your picture.” He smiled down at me – that is the photo I put on the altar. I added Corn Flakes, the cereal he used to eat every morning, a little trumpet to represent his love of big band music, and a dreidel because he was Jewish.
While I experienced sadness at first, that sadness lifted and I began to experience the holiday as it’s meant to be celebrated. My boys asked me questions about the altar, and I had the opportunity to share stories with them about my grandfather which felt really good.
This year as I set up the altar, I realized that my attitude toward remembering loved ones had changed and I now felt comfortable including my great-grandmothers. As they did last year, the boys asked questions about photos and items on the altar. I was more than happy to tell them stories, the good memories of so many people I was blessed to have known.