On the November 1 episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live, Jimmy and Guillermo talked a little about Day of the Dead celebrations in the opening monologue. Jimmy said something along the lines of, “Mexicans celebrate with candles and altars and family stories. We celebrate by watching Coco.” I laughed, but it hit home. The only real exposure I’d had to Day of the Dead had also come through Coco. I highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it. Be prepared to cry.
That was, until my kids took Spanish in high school. In the fall semester the teacher assigns a project for each kid to create their own Day of the Dead altar. Caroline did hers in 2020, and Carter this year. Both times, I was struck by just how meaningful the experience was, for the kids and for me.
Carter chose to honor my grandmother, Janie Milholland. When we started talking about her, sharing her likes and dislikes, her hobbies and things she was involved in, Carter at one point said, “I really don’t remember her a lot.” And my heart hurt. I think of Carter as so much a part of her life. I realize he wouldn’t remember going to her home in Statesville like Caroline does, blowing bubbles on the side porch and eating popsicles. He was just a toddler. But she moved to Parkwood, a retirement community just 10 minutes from my house, when Carter was four years old, and from that point on, we were regulars at Parkwood.
We went after school every Friday to sit and visit. The kids would pull out all the Dollar Store toys from her closet and play on the floor, until eventually Carter ended up nestled in the recliner right beside Grandma, playing games on her iPad. When Caroline had days off school, we’d all three go to eat lunchwith her, making friends with other great-grandmothers and enjoying a plethora of ice cream treats from the freezer in the dining room.
I have so many vivid memories of Grandma that include Carter right there beside her, that I could hardly fathom how he didn’t also share those memories. But he was little, and just barely six when she died.
Last week, over the course of a few days, Carter and I shared memories of Grandma.
We pulled out the book of letters she wrote home to her mother and mother-in-law during the years she lived in Texas. Those times were full of wrangling four small children and navigating life in a terrain that was totally foreign to her, a North Carolina native. Her humor comes through in her writing, even though I know it wasn’t easy to uproot the family and follow her husband’s job.
We looked through pictures and talked about special birthdays and holiday meals.
We gathered up items around the house that were hers passed down. A bright red clay cardinal, playing cards that graced her bridge table, and a picture of the large cross-stitched sampler that hangs on our wall.
And from all of that, Carter created an altar.
According to National Geographic Kids, the Day of the Dead is a celebration that combines the ancient Aztec custom of celebrating ancestors with All Soul’s Day, a religious holiday brought to Mexico with the Spanish invaders in the 1500s. It’s like a big family reunion, where the guests of honor are our dead ancestors. “Day of the Dead is a joyful time that helps people remember the deceased and celebrate their memory.”
Before making the altar to Grandma, I didn’t associate Day of the Dead with something that brings joy. But experiencing it in a small way last week, I understood. Telling the stories and looking at the pictures brought such a feeling of joy and comfort. I felt close to her, and it made me happy to feel like I was helping bring her memory to life for Carter as well.
How many times in our busy lives do we stop to take time to share family stories, and pass down important things from our previous generations to our kids? It’s easy to assume they know things just because they’re a part of the family, but learning doesn’t happen by osmosis. It takes deliberate practice.
Heading into the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, maybe we should all learn a little from our neighbors to the south who celebrate Dia de las Muertos. While you’re together with your family, before the kids run off with their cousins to watch movies or play video games and get away from the boring adult conversations, take some time to tell stories about the people who used to sit there at the table with you. Life lessons, funny moments and family history are all worth taking time to share.