Monday, November 07, 2016

What Sparked Childhood Memories

For Dia de Meurtos I bought a six pack of the little six ounce size Cokes, in the same kind of green glass bottles Coke came in when I was a kid in the 1940s. 

Having a soft drink was a real treat in those days. Soft drinks weren’t kept in the pantry or fridge, and they certainly weren’t considered appropriate for a child under six years of age, and soft drinks containing caffeine weren’t given to children at all. What we were allowed was 'Kayo', carbonated chocolate milk which cost five cents a bottle, which we purchased at the laundry across the street and up the alley. 

The laundry was a big building with high ceilings and doors that opened right up on both ends. It was always hot and steaming and smelled of lavender soap, scorch and hot starch. The floors were rough, and always wet, cement, cool to our bare feet.   

The square galvanized washtubs were arranged in sets of four with a wringer that swung between them. Four or five women took care of about 30 sets of these tubs. It was like watching a dance, as the women in their aprons moved between their groups of tubs, endlessly moving laundry through the four tub sequence that took it from dirty to clean. 

By the time the laundry reached the fourth tub it was nice and clean, and the woman might add starch, or if the laundry was white shirts or sheets or table linens she might add a bit of bluing from a bottle in her apron pocket. 

At the end the clean clothes would have the water wrung out and they’d go into a big basket and a man would carry the basket outside so the clothes could be hung on the clothesline. In one corner several women worked over ironing boards, and it was from this corner that the bewitching smell of scorch and starch arose. 

I would hang over the edge of a tub to see the agitators churn back and forth and watch the clothes rise and disappear again in the dark water,  but my friends were far more interested in the soda machine, and would pull me away. 

The machine that dispensed the sodas was magnificent. We discussed at length how it knew when you had inserted your nickel, because my friends Tommy and Leslie knew boys who had actually tried to remove a soda from this very machine without paying and the machine would not let them!  Tommy said it had to be a thinking machine, a scientific marvel such as only seen in our Flash Gordon Comics. 

The marvellous thinking machine was an ordinary-looking enough box. It was red in colour with “Drink RC Cola” emblazoned across the front and it had a thick lid you had to lift. Inside it was lined with galvanized metal with a series of channels from which soda bottles hung by their tops. The channels ended in a single channel which allowed you to bring your bottle of choice to the front where there was a gate apparatus which could be lifted. You inserted your nickel, slid the soda bottle you wanted along the channel to the end, brought it to the gate, and lifted your bottle out. 

Of course there was first the difficulty of obtaining the required nickel. To do that we collected bottles, raked leaves, pulled weeds and picked bugs off plants in gardens and did all manner of odd jobs. A week’s worth of work, or several days of looking for bottles might net us the nickel needed for a Kayo. All the sweeter for the effort. 

In retrospect, while childhood seems to last several lifetimes to a child, it is but a fleeting moment in retrospect … but it can all be brought back more than 60 years later by a little green glass bottle.  

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Celebrating Dia de Meurtos (Day of the Dead)

George Eliot said; Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them. 

Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a celebration of pre-Hispanic origins which honours loved ones who have passed  away. It is held on the 1st and 2nd of  November. It is celebrated in Mexico and Central America, as well as in communities around the world where there are populations of people with Indigenous Mexican, Mexican and Central American heritage.

The origins of Dia de Meurtos go back 3,000 years to the Mexica, Maya, Purépecha  and Totonaca Indians, who prior to the arrival of the Spaniards memorialized their ancestors during the month of August with candlelight processions, flowers, incense, puppets and statues of gods, heroes, mythological figures and painted skulls which told the stories of death and rebirth.

After the colonization of the Americas, when the church outlawed many indigenous practices, these Native rituals and celebrations were folded into the Catholic holidays of All Hallows Eve on October 31st, All Saints’ Day on November 1st and All Souls’ Day on the 2nd, with Christian saints replacing the Native figures.

Families still remember and honour their departed loved ones, their “Meurtos”, by setting up an ofrenda (altar), at home, by making a trip to the cemetery to clean and decorate the graves of their Meurtos, and going to church. Friends and family will gather for a meal and, stirred by the photos and mementos on the ofrenda, reminisce about beloved family members who have passed.

Our ofrenda is set up, with the four elements represented,  earth by the food, wind by the papel picado, water in the sherry glass and fire by the candles. Plus there is salt and painted skulls and skeletons that serve as reminders that death and rebirth are a great cycle.

Of course, no ofrenda is complete without flowers. The marigold is the basic must-have flower which forms the arch on every ofrenda. It may be augmented by any flower but it is well-known that the favourite flower of the Meurto is the marigold.  I have added spider mums, peonies and carnations. While copal is the traditional incense I couldn't lay hands on any so I burned pine incense because most of my Meurtos came from areas where the pine is the dominant tree.  A pine log fire was the very scent of home.

The ofrenda honours those loved ones who have passed, so we have photos of family members on the shelves; my parents Charlie and Mattie, Tony’s parents George and Kinette, my paternal grand-parents, Josie and Fred. There’s my maternal grandfather Henry and Tony’s maternal grandmother Marie Theresa. Then there’s a photo of my grandfather Fred’s parents William and Susan Ann, and grandmother’s Josie’s mother, Kizziar. My brothers Hall and Harrell and sister Ruby are also there, and second parents Midge and Barney. Barney was one of my high school teachers, and they became like a second family to me.

Nov 1st is called "Dia los Angelitos" (Day of Little Angels) and the Spirits of the children who have passed are said to visit their families, so on Nov 1st ofrendas are decorated with toys and sweets, for the children in the family who have passed. We have no photos of Isabel, the baby girl we lost in 1971. I found an angel card which I’m letting represent her. I added some small toys, a teddy bear, Babar and Celeste, a doll and cradle (miniatures made by much-loved friends years ago) and of course candy and colourful cupcakes. To her left are Ixchel, Mayan Goddess of women, and her Rabbit companion.

On Nov 2nd the Spirits of the infants return to Heaven and the adults' Spirits come to visit.  On the 2nd items which belonged to the Meurtos are placed on the ofrenda, to make the Meurtos happy to see familiar items.

We have placed a smooth green and grey egg carved from agate, the size of a robin’s egg, which belonged to Tony’s father George on the ofrenda as his memento. George brought it back from Ecuador in the 1930’s. He was a geologist, and he loved shells and stones.

I never saw Tony’s mother without the small golden hoop earrings that are clipped to her photo. She took them off and gave them to me before going into the surgery she did not survive in February 1990. There’s also a tiny pair of wooden Dutch clogs, carved in 1901, which belonged to her. They are empty in the photo above (Angelito Day) but on the 2nd I placed a cigarette in each clog, one for George and one for my Dad.

Also on the ofrenda are some of our Meurtos’ favourite foods. Grandma Josie adored chocolate, as did Kinette, so there is chocolate for them. Dad's favourite candy was lemon drops. I couldn't find any so I bought the closest thing, which were citrus jellybeans. Traditionally cooked red (pinto) beans, cornbread, cheese enchiladas, rice and tacos were all favourite foods of my Meurtos, so a plate of these go on the ofrenda, along with fruit, cupcakes and a cinnamon bun (for my mother), and some fancy cheeses for George and Kinette.

A beer and a Coca-Cola, in the small old-style bottle, complete the meal. While the Meurtos can’t eat, drink or smoke, their Spirits are said to enjoy the “essence” of the food and drink on the ofrenda, and if they were smokers, one is expected to put out a cigarette for them - after all they no longer have to worry about smoker’s cough, do they?

My mother’s watch is her memento. She was a tiny person, and the wristband of the watch is so small it appears to be for a child, and a small child at that! I also have one of her aprons in the kitchen, so if her spirit wanders into the kitchen she'll see it there.

Tucked onto the edge of Tony’s grandmother’s picture frame is a teeny gold Crusader’s Cross with “Jerusal__” on it. The the last letter(s) are worn off. This little medal was one of the gifts her brother Albert brought back for her when he went to Jerusalem in 1901. She wore this tiny medal and a an equally tiny crucifix on a fine gold chain around her neck. Her brother died in 1929, so I’m guessing she passed this tiny Crusader cross through her thumb and finger as she prayed for him for 30+ years after his death.

My Dad's memento is a plastic coin case which holds a 1979 John Kennedy 50 cent piece. How many times have I seen him fish that coin purse from his pocket and dig change from it? It says, “Forget Not All His Benefits”. Of course it’s a Bible reference, but I remember the benefits of being raised by such an honourable and decent man.

The skeleton bridal couple represent my mother's grandparents William and Angeline, who died age 21 and 20, leaving my grandmother Molly orphaned at age two.  I don’t have a photo of my mother’s mother Molly, but I put her tin box which originally held dusting powder on the ofrenda. It was a Christmas gift from my Granddad Henry 100 years years ago. Mother used it as a button box all the years I was growing up. You can see it just beyond the vase of pink peonies.

It is in the preparation that we call our loved ones back, buying the ingredients for the meal, seeking out the chocolates, cheeses and beer they liked, going through the family albums and pulling out photos, bringing out keepsakes freighted with memories. Buying flowers, bringing out dishes, candles and the decorative skulls and figures, and at last combining all of it on, or into, the ofrenda. It is an ancient ritual, one that ties us to hundreds of generations of our ancestors. We eat traditional foods, and we remember our Meurtos, and hope they linger to hear our laughter.