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Growing up, we moved around a lot – nine cities, four apartments, four elementary schools and nine houses. In each home we lived in, my dad used yard work as his destressor. One of those cities was a desert, but somehow we still had a lawn the shade of the neighbors’ green-with-envy faces. I remember losing quite a bit of sleep on Saturday mornings to that darn lawn mower or weed wacker. Yet, for each home, the grass wasn’t what drew your eye – it was whatever flower he chose to plant.
In our Virginia home, my dad decided marigolds were his flower of choice. He planted them in yellow, red and orange. When spring rolled around, the front of our house looked like it was on fire. The colors were so vibrant, and the scent... well, it stopped you in your tracks. Call it musky, and somehow you found yourself debating if you liked it or if you should plug your nose.
This year, I'll pick up some marigolds, but not for planting – for my dad’s ofrenda. Ofrendas adorned with marigolds are part of the typical Mexican celebrations for the Dia De Los Muertos holiday, which focuses on remembering deceased family members. My dad passed on May 18, 2020.
Primarily celebrated in Mexico’s central and southern regions, they believe the spirits of the deceased come back on Nov. 2 (All Souls Day) to visit the living. And to help guide them back, families create ofrendas, which are like altars decorated in bright colors, including photos, candles, water, traditional bread, food, sugar skulls, personal belongings – and marigolds. It’s intended to celebrate the life of those lost and offer a time to reflect.
Being a third-generation Mexican-American, our family has created our own tradition around this holiday. For us it’s always been a gut buster – both from the amazing food and big belly laughs. We’re talking at least two tables covered in tamales, tacos, BBQ, pan dulce and any other of our deceased loved ones’ favorite dishes. We’d pull out framed photos or albums and any other trinkets we had kept to remember the person by. The room then filled with family sharing their favorite stories, usually comedic. And boy, it was always at such a loud decibel.
Due to COVID-19, I had to get up in front of a socially distant funeral home and read: “Celestino ‘Tony’ Vargas IV was a decorated Vietnam Veteran earning numerous Bronze Stars as part of the famed 101st Airborne Division, a proud police officer for the San Antonio Police Department, a member of their first ever SWAT team and a highly respected Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) resident agent in charge. Beloved Brother, Tio, Dad and Gampa. He will be extremely missed by his surviving five siblings, 17 nieces and nephews, three children and four grandchildren.”
But that’s not the story I'll tell my nieces as we sit around the table for Dia De Los Muertos 2020.
I’ll tell them about how one time I made Gampa so sick on the teacups at Disney because I just had to keep spinning and spinning. Or how he single-handedly kept Consort hairspray in business because he could never have a hair out of place – that man’s hair laughed at wind! Or that one Christmas we broke a dining room table from taking the Spoons card game just a little too seriously. And I’ll remind them his hugs made you feel everything was handled, and you didn’t have to worry about a thing.
Coming back to the ofrenda, there will also be a pair of black faded, scuffed and beat-up motorcycle boots that have seen some of this country’s most beautiful highways. Plus, chile con carne enchiladas with cheddar cheese and extra diced onions, along with a photo of my dad holding me at age three outside the children’s museum in Corpus Christi, Texas. A true depiction of how I’ll remember him – always lifting me up and ready to catch me if I should fall.
This year, Dia De Los Muertos will look a little different to me and my family. But we understand death is part of life, and as the Mexican saying goes: “Don't take anything lying down -- even death!”