COLUMN: Honouring the dead

The row of scarves at the market stall in Old Town San Diego fluttered gently in the breeze, beckoning me closer. Ignoring the image in my mind of my burgeoning collection of pashminas and infinity scarves at home, I fingered the blush pink chiffon I just knew I had to have. The skull print on it took me back to my Mexican holiday over a year ago, when I didn’t understand the traditional significance of skulls and skeletons.

It wasn’t until after our holiday, when I watched the newly released Disney Pixar film, Coco, that I learned about el Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) – and the skulls took on a whole new meaning.

El Dia de los Muertos is actually two days of the year (Nov. 1 and 2) set aside to remember friends and family who have passed away. It is observed in Mexico and throughout Latin America with altars, candles, food, and music. It is a time when grave sites are weeded and decorated; family members may sit at graves and eat and tell stories to honour the ones who have passed.

As I traced the skull pattern with my finger under a grey San Diego sky that looked heavy with rain, my thoughts drifted to my own personal Dia de los Muertos – the anniversary of my mom’s passing – which was just weeks away.

I thought about how my family would gather for evening prayers, with food made in honour of her and all our deceased loved ones. I thought about the photo of my mom I have kept on my bedside table for the past 10 years, and the photos of my husband’s and my grandparents on our living room wall.

And all the stories we share with our kids in spontaneous moments when memories that make us laugh resurface.

I turned to the woman manning the stall and asked her how much for the scarf.

“Ten dollars,” she replied.

I nodded. “I’ll take it.”

As she reached for a new, still-packaged scarf from the shelf behind her, I told her about my own cultural traditions that honour the dead.

We noted the similarities and talked about how these types of traditions, introduced to us as children, somewhat reduce the distance between life and death, bringing it all together as part of a cycle. The ritual of remembrance in community helps to ease the pain and alienation.

Walking away with my purchase, I felt I also came away with much more.

More than just an accessory now, my scarf contains a story. It tells of a blip in my life and a blip in the vendor’s life, that intersected in an historic Southern California town.

It speaks of a connection across cultures at a time of year when missing my mom feels heavy – like the sky that day that did spill open eventually.

It doesn’t really matter where we go in this world, the stories and memories of those close to us follow.

And that doesn’t change based on any boxes we tick about ourselves: gender, race, religion, etc.

Maybe we can even find comfort in knowing this, knowing that whether we remember los Muertos, or the dead, in different or similar ways, we all go through…this.

Sickness, love, death, joy – our lives contain these stories, and sharing them can build bridges of understanding and comfort.

Columnist Taslim Jaffer writes monthly on multicultural connections.

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