Today is November 1st. Halloween parties have ceased and I only have gummy bears left in my candy jar. We had our students color decorated skeleton masks and dedicate them to someone they have loved and lost. It may seem morbid to some, but to me, and many of my culture, November 1st is a day to celebrate the lives of those who have passed.
My mother and I make a traditional altar every year. It has pictures of family members who we have lost, along with their favorite foods, and drinks, and trinkets. Sadly, we have added one more picture this year. After the altar is finished, all there is left to do is remember.
My Grandma was one of 11 children. She was born in Terlingua, Texas in 1915. She only finished up to the 6th grade, but she was the wisest woman I have ever known. She had 6 children, one of whom died at the age of 3. My brother is named after him. My grandfather was a hard worker, but an alcoholic. My grandmother left him, but wanted to be buried next to him when she died. She was. She knew English, but refused to speak it. She was a cook at an Italian restaurant in El Paso, Texas. I always remember her hating pizza and spaghetti. She paid $12,000 for her small two-bedroom house. I remember her always telling me how important it was that I finish school. She warned that without it, I would be “dumb” like her. We both knew she wasn’t.
She taught me to sing by loving singing herself, and if I close my eyes I can hear her deep melodic voice.
“Tengo una muneca vestida de azul, con sus medias blancas y sombrero azul.”
I still remember all the coros she sang to me, and sometimes I sing them out loud to myself…and she is with me.
In my early twenties I took my then partner home for the holidays. I was the defiant niece who refused to hide in the closet or behind closed doors. I never told my grandmother, but during that visit, she called my female partner my “husband,” in front of all of my family. I never heard a negative thing about my being gay from anyone in my family again.
My Uncle Ray lived in Corpus Christi, Texas for all of the time that I knew him. He was the only man in my life of any consequence. I didn’t really know my father until I was 18. (a story for another day) My mother and I spent as much time with him as we could. We both adored him. We lived with him when I was very young, and then moved back to El Paso at some point that I don’t remember. Even in El Paso, so far away, my mother would curb bad behavior by telling me she was going to tell Uncle Ray. The behavior stopped.
Uncle Ray was a Vietnam Vet, and we always knew there were things we couldn’t talk to him about. Sometimes he would fall silent, and we knew he was somewhere else. Other times I remember hearing him sob from behind his bedroom door. He wasn’t a mean man, but he rubbed and pinched my cheeks red when I told him I wanted to wear makeup. I didn’t ask again.
We went to the beach a lot. That was our favorite place. One time he was stung by a man o’ war. We were scared. Another time a drunk man in a truck almost ran over me and my cousin while we were making sand castles. He pulled the man out of his truck. I didn’t see what happened next.
He didn’t like tv, but he loved his guitar, and so after dinner we would gather in his small livingroom and he would hand us instruments. My favorite was a percussion instrument that had rows of silver beads you would turn with you palm. To this day I have no idea what it is called.
My mom would sit in the most coveted place in the room, by his side. He would begin to strum Neil Young, and I would wait in anticipation of my mother’s amazing voice.
My Aunt Julie lived in Philadelphia. She passed away this summer. She had a beautiful family of a husband and three boys, one of whom is gay. According to stories I’ve heard throughout the years, she never liked school. My grandmother would drag her there by her braids. She was a stubborn woman. It runs in the family.
I didn’t get to spend enough time with her, but this Spring I was sent to D.C. for work and I was able to drive up and see her. I am so grateful for that now.
Today is a day to remember, but it is also a day for the living to celebrate life.
It’s a time for us to be grateful for all the beauty and wisdom that has been passed on to us.
I remember, and I am most certainly filled with gratitude. Thank you.