Today is the Day of the Dead, celebrated all over the world, a day meant to honor our ancestors and welcome them back into the realm of the living. It’s a day-pass kind of thing, and it’s assumed they will depart when the clock strikes midnight. I only mention this because while there are some ancestors of mine I wouldn’t mind seeing again, I certainly wouldn’t want them thinking I’d like them around for more than 24 hours.
It’s a day of creating an altar with the favorite foods of our ancestor, something nice to drink, flowers and candles, and the smoke from copal resin to purify the air.
I’ve placed a picture of my grandmother on my altar and I invite her back for a visit. I’ve put out some of the artificially flavored banana candies she liked, and a small glass of cherry schnapps. Not as good as the brew she made in her basement, but it will have to do. In the photo, she’s seated on the porch of the Star of David nursing home where she spent her last years.
My grandmother was my safe place growing up; her home, two blocks away from mine, was where I took refuge from the sorrow that was my childhood.
I remember the warmth her body gave off, the feel of the fragile skin on her gnarled hands. I remember her kitchen which always smelled of browning onions and garlic, the strange foods in her refrigerator with no expiration date. I remember her Persian rug and heavy mahogany furniture, the silver samovar, the brocade drapes. I remember the smell of her garage – rust and motor oil – when I visited my stray cat Goldie who lived there by my grandmother’s good graces. I remember I stopped sweating when I came to see her because she loved me just the way I was.
I remember how still she always sat, hands folded in her lap, bashert, surrendering to God’s will. I remember being hesitant to ask her what it was like for her as a sixteen-year-old, sent away from her home to the safety of America, crossing the ocean alone in ship’s steerage. I remember all the days and months I sat at her formica kitchen table, learning to drink tea through a sugar cube held between my teeth, too young to know that the grown-up me will one day wish I had asked about her parents, her brothers, nieces and nephews who stayed behind and were slaughtered in the 1905 pogrom in the Ukraine. What I remember is sitting in the deep silence of her broken heart.
I don’t know how to tell you this, I say to her, but it’s happening again. Jews are being slaughtered. In America. Jews, Muslims, African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, immigrants, we are all facing the ovens right now and I don’t know what to do.
I imagine her stroking my hair. Maidalah, she says, we have been here before. The power of darkness is here again, threatening us all. But we will prevail. Be good to each other, help each other. Remember the good that was, and will be again.
The bullies, the destroyers, the haters frighten me, and my fallback position is to dissociate into numbness. But I am here today, the next link in a long chain of ancestors stretching back through my grandmother to her mother and beyond, women who kept the candle of hope burning deep in their hearts. Hope based not on a wish that the monster will disappear overnight, but hope based on experience, on knowing that we grow stronger and better able to persevere through the darkness, better able to open our broken hearts to each other in love and support.
So I am clinging to this like fire on wood. I’m holding to a vision of what’s possible as we awaken individually and collectively to our interconnectedness. I am exploring my own racism and white privilege, examining my impact on the planet, how I consume resources and my assumptions about what I’m entitled to. I am lighting the candle of hope in my heart. Love will prevail.
Who would you like to invite onto your altar? Who would you like to remember today?
“We write history with our feet and with our presence and our collective voice and vision. And yet, of course, everything in the mainstream media suggests that popular resistance is ridiculous, pointless, or criminal, unless it is far away, was long ago, or, ideally, both. These are the forces that prefer the giant remain asleep.”
― Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark
“If you are a white woman like me, I invite you to reflect on what would be an empowered step you could take in any groups or organizations you are part of that may be unintentionally perpetuating systemic racism or other injustices. How can you agitate business as usual so that the voices of black, indigenous or people of color can be heard and uplifted? I am not perfect at this and I make mistakes all the time. Part of the journey is learning how to make mistakes and keep learning.”
—Bethany Webster. Healing the Mother Wound.