One of the most lively and life-affirming times of the year here in the US is the Day of the Dead. And one of the most stunning exhibitions I've seen on this holiday is at Oakland Museum. (Pic: "Soul of the Dead" from the website)
Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos is observed on November 2 (this Tuesday) by many in Mexico and in the US. It focuses on the gathering of family and friends to pray for loved ones who have died. Traditions include building private altars honoring the dead, using sugar skulls, marigolds and the favourite food and drink of the departed. It's often thought to be connected to Halloween which is 31 October, this Sunday, though the two have little in common. Day of the Dead is a time of celebration where partying and eating is common.
I saw the exhibition last week when I was chaperoning a school field trip to the Oakland Museum in a day filled - as is always this time of year - with flurries of emails about the school fundraiser, class projects, cheques needed, endless sports carpools and the campaign for Mayor. As a friend says: "Even if you don't volunteer for every request for help, you've seen the request and you feel guilty." On top of that I realised I hadn't got the kids any Halloween costumes. All of these princely problems: we're lucky enough to be at an Oakland Public School where parents care so much they raise nearly $200,000; lucky to be able to afford to sign up our kids for endless sports; lucky to have the opportunity to help elect the Mayor I want. But sometimes you can feel a little sorry for yourself. Princely problems, yes, but they're your problems.
The exhibition was like a cool wind blowing through my day, rattling my complacency and pitiful self-pity.
There were the forms of small children covered with broken pieces of glass. They had lost their mothers, who have been killed by the corrupt government or kidnapped in the night. Next to this was a rich and peaceful altar of found driftwood, moss, flowers and succulents.
And next again, a pyramid by Tino Rodriguez which invited people to write a short note to their dead. I wrote "Goodbye Helen, Des and Auntie Doris and Auntie Paula" on one of the pieces of handmade paper supplied. This first two were parents of old friends and the second two were relatives, and somehow I had thought all of them immortal. They were rocks of stability, strength and vitality and they had even looked the same for years, a constant in my travelling life. I had no more room to add that I hoped they got together for a bit of a chinwag and a cuppa. Or even better, a stiff G&T...
As I pinned up my note, one of the other mothers pointed out the most heartbreaking message I have ever read.
"Dear Mom, Dad, Alex and Baby Sissy. I wish that car had not killed you. I love you guys. Me and Granny are fine."