I want to build a sort of ofrenda to the people whom I've loved but have failed to cherish or did not get to know. Inside the ofrenda I will place skeleton figures of these people.
My Granny and Grampy will dance to a big band, scotch and cigarettes in their hands. Her sister, Aunt Vivian, and Uncle Bill will dance beside them, also with scotch and cigarettes. When they were all young, before I was born, they all had wonderful times together.
My Paw-paw will sit in a garden and smoke his pipe, enjoying a moment of peace before the imminent arrival of his wife. Perhaps he should ride on his Mardi Gras float, throwing bead and telling dirty jokes with the other men. That way, he will see my Maw-maw, but from a fun-loving distance. He will still have his pipe.
My Big Paw-Paw will be lucid and building whole houses by hand. My Big Maw-maw will be fixing pan-fried chicken with mashed potatoes, and watermelon for dessert. Aunt Helen will be decked out in the gaudiest jewels -- real ones, now, of course! -- and the brightest and shiniest of all fabrics. She and her Mr. Cookie will sit on the front row of the UNO basketball game, jumping up and down and hugging one another with glee. Her son Kevin will sit nearby, reading a book. I will surround Aunt Helen and my Maw-maw with glitter to represent their unabashed love of all things shiny. Uncle Elmer is fuzzy, but he will be there too.
M'amie will reign upon her chair watching her children. Aunt Irma sits beside her with her shi tzu on her lap. Aunt Ethel tends her movie theater; and, of course my granny and Vivian dancing with their men. Uncle Louis, her son, like Uncle Elmer, is fuzzy. The women always outlived the men. Perhaps these great uncles can sit together in the shadows, passing a bottle and humming a little song like those old men would do.
A big pot of gumbo will be nearby, a long table covered with crawfish and shrimp. They all, both sides, loved gumbo, crawfish and shrimp! (Who doesn't?) Oh, and red beans and rice! Plenty of Bourbon will have to be close at hand. Cigarettes, too. In this ofenda, there is no alcoholism or cancer, only les bon temp.
Dogs, of course, will be there, too. Rascal the dachshund, Clementine the basset hound, and Tier the mutt will chase one another through endless fields, into new cities and suburbs with the fragrance of garbage and other dog's bottoms drawing them on. Klyde will lie on the back of a love seat in front of a window, better able to look both outside and in. Silly Suzette will be groomed and powdered, with a bright pink bow at the top of her pouf. Gretl, my baby Gretl, will sit patiently waiting for me to arrive to give her a treat and cuddle her while I read. Cat will be there too, because I did love her -- and only I loved her -- although she was wild.
I have to place Joel there. Joel, who was kind and gentle, who had a passion for music and a deep, Judaic spirituality that I never comprehended. Joel, whose birthday was on Christmas and would joke in his best Borscht Belt accent, "a Jew? Born on December 25th? Think about it!" Joel, who loved me but I didn't let him. Who found someone who loved him back, married her and had three boys. Joel, the rabbi in training. Joel, who died of leukemia 2 years ago and I never knew. He will have his guitar, and a yarmulke to represent his faith.
Milagros will hang outside of this sort-of-ofrenda. Their Milagros. Lots of hearts and lungs, many eyes and ears, a few heads and praying hands, a Star of David for Joel.
Outside, too, will be a line. First in this line will be my grandmother, diminished and angry, begging to be let in. Behind her will be my father and brother and mother, a trinity of sublimated pain. My Aunt Cathy and uncle Gary hold hands, but secretly try to maneuver the other ahead. I'm there too, begging to be let in first. "I'll prepare the way," I say, realizing I sound like the Bible. "No really," I repeat, "I'll make it all nice for you! Just don't leave me behind!" Behind me is my other brother, his back to the front gates of this ofrenda, oblivious to their existence. He concentrates on his wife, who stands behind him. She and I cast furtive glances to one another, both showing our scars from trying to cut in line. Behind her is my other brother's future ex-wife -- that is, his current wife from whom he is separated. She has her back turned on the gates, playing with my nephews, each the son of one brother. My nephews? Boudreaux dances, the Spider builds.
I forgot one more detail: Inside the sort-of-ofrenda lies a baby. She is me. The baby me, but knowing all of these happy skeletons, watching them dancing and smoking, eating and drinking, loving death every bit as much as they loved life. She learns them as joyful souls and feel joy in return. She waits for the others to join them. She wants to forgive them and show them that she loves them. She wants them to know that she always did.
I mean no offense to with this ofrenda. I do not intend to colonize nor show disrespect. I have loved the ofrendas since I first saw them. I connect them with a beautiful part of Texas and a rebirth in my own life. The happy skeletons and beautiful altars of Dia de los Muertos spoke profoundly to my melancholy, and reminded me of those perplexing and wonderful jazz funerals. They take the grief of death and combine it with the joy of life and love -- two opposites -- in a harmoniously, beautiful and creative whole.