The day before Halloween, my husband and I helped our daughter set up an ofrenda, an altar, in her apartment in Mexico City for Dia de Muertos, the day when Mexicans celebrate and remember family and friends who have passed.
We arranged vases of bright orange marigolds around a collection of photographs of people we have lost. Our daughter lit candles and heated charcoal to smolder copal, an incense made of tree resin that she had bought in the market. The scent of the marigolds and incense are believed to lead the dead back from the other side. We laid out small marzipan fruit; pan de muertos, a special sweet bread made for the dead; a tiny bottle of Tangeray for my father-in-law, who loved his martinis; for my mother, who had been so stylish, I added one of her pins; then we rounded out our offerings with a jackknife from my father, who had been able to fix anything except his cancer. When we were done and we sat back amid the glow of the candles, I could feel the presence of each of the people in the photographs. They felt closer to us — more present.
Practicing Traditions Creating an ofrenda is such a beautiful Mexican tradition — joyous and colorful, not somber. It is a way to welcome the dead back into our lives, to visually tell the story of a life, to keep their memory alive, to speak their name, to share their life. A time when the line between the living and the dead becomes more transparent.
It should be no surprise that a holiday dedicated to welcoming people from our past into our present resonates with me. After all, it is what much of my work as a Personal Historian is based on. However, I often wonder if the pull I have long felt towards Dia de Muertos had been seeded in me through a similar Polish tradition — even though it is one I have never experienced myself.
Echoes from the past Whenever my mother told me the story of her mother, my babciu, coming to America, there was always one part of the telling that was the most significant. It wasn’t the long journey from her village in Poland to the port in Bremerhaven, Germany, nor the rough crossing in steerage class on the steamship, and it wasn’t the chaos of Ellis Island. It was the fact that my grandmother and her young daughter had arrived in New York on All Saints Day, a day when everyone in Poland returns to the graves of their families to gather together, clean tombstones, light candles, and share food and drink as they remember those who have passed. There, onboard her ship, looking out into the harbor of New York, all she felt was the breaking of that tradition of her family that stretched back for generations in her tiny hillside village in Poland, in the small cemetery where she knew all the names. She was aware that right then, on that day, everyone was gathering as they would for years to come — but now, she would no longer be part of the tradition. From that day on, it would continue, just without her…
I wish I had brought a photo of my grandmother for the ofrenda. Today, I’m feeling the need to speak her name: Anna (née Garbacz) Banas.
Chris Wisniewski lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and works as a Personal Historian at her company, Saving Stories (saving-stories.com). The photograph of her was taken in her grandmother’s village, Kobyłczyna, Poland.