One of the big surprises that I found after coming to the USA is that Americans (as in from the USA), in general, have a real issue with death. I came to this realization when my maternal Grandfather passed away while on a private cruise of the Galapagos and we went to the US for his funeral. One of the worst parts of that was that I was not allowed to attend the funeral. That was my father’s decision, my mother, deep in grief I am sure, picked her battle and allowed that to happen. I am sure that had I been in her situation I might have made the same choice. So, my father was my first experience with Americans that tend to treat death as some unnatural thing that children should not be exposed to… like sex, it is taboo. However, what I think he failed to realize is that I did not have that view point. Death was something I deeply understood to be a part of the process of being human, I was strangely comfortable about the grip this stage of life had in my young mind. So, I was very angry. It took me years, 37 of them, and a procession of disjointed experiences to finally realize what had happened. My father was fully American and failed to realize he had a fully Latin American daughter.
Another stand out event was with one of my first roommates. Being a seemingly very white woman I think I throw people for a loop when my more Latin nature seeps through.
A little background; when we came to the US following my parents separation, my mother arranged through a miraculous series of events to bring my cat with us. My cat lived to be 23 years old and when she died, I had her cremated. Her ashes joined a cadre of jars, glass jars, that held the beloved remains of my other pets. These jars of remains have traveled with me since I left home, and still have places around my house and are joined by the ashes of my grandmother and great uncle. Unusual for a white family, I would imagine. I can think of one exception to this, and that is a magnificently dear friend who was born with an expat spirit.
So, I am living in a house with four others and we all put special things out in our living room. I thought nothing about putting the ashes of my pets. A few weeks later one of my roommates approaches me as I was dusting and tells me that one of the other roommates found it a bit odd and that they suspected this person was upset, in a way, about my putting my pets on a shared display. I was taken aback, it was truly nothing I found odd, at least not as odd as an acquaintance of my mothers when we lived in South America who loved Pomeranian’s and when her beloved puppies died she turned them into doilies with stuffed heads, much like the bear skin rugs of a fireside romance, and placed them around her home including on her coffee table and on the arms of her chairs.
However, I realized that I had just assumed everyone who loved their pets would feel this way… but that there was a series of unexplored assumptions I had been making. So, I took my jars off our TV stand and moved them to my room. Several months later the roommate who had apparently had a problem with the ashes asked me where they were. I told them that I had heard they weren’t fond of them and that I had moved them to my room. They looked a me for a bit, and said that they somewhat missed them being around. I was skeptical, and said that my room was probably best. I actually was wondering if they used them to talk to their friends about their weird roomie with a penchant for dead things. Which I suppose is one way to look at things.
However, it wasn’t until today that I realized that my father must have the same or very similar viewpoint as my old roommate. The idea of which is still sitting in my center being mulled and contemplated. I grew up, to use a military vernacular, “in the economy”. I attended the local schools, I went to my father’s bullfights, spoke primarily in Spanish at home and elsewhere, and lived and played with children of both locals and other expats. My childhood was uniquely Latin. I attended Catechism classes, I loved the beautiful churches that remained untouched by Vatican II, I learned my role as a female (albeit for the Spanish me, the American me missed out on that formative time and was apparently a tomboy), and I was around and played with the children of people who loved and lived with death as a part of the whole existence.
One of my favorite times of year was Dia de los Difuntos, or as most (north) Americans know it, Dia de los Muertos. We had a special drink made with blackberries and ate pan de guagua. Loved ones were recalled and appreciated in many homes, and since I lived so far away, I wasn’t all that aware of the history of my own ancestors so I just assumed in a naive way, that it wasn’t my turn yet to celebrate the lives of people that I had loved who had passed away. The night my grandfather passed away, all of us on the trip sat in the galley of the ship and were silent as my grandfather was getting CPR. I recall looking at this group of desperately sad adults, and telling them that I knew he was going to heaven. These words that comforted me seemed to infuriate this group of Americans I was traveling with. I was yelled at to shut up. I suppose that this was my first glimpse into the cultural difference I had with these people. Many years later, I was talking with my great uncle, my grandfathers brother, about my grandfather and as he was on that trip and I asked him about that situation. He thought a bit about the event, both our eyes were welled with tears, and he looked at me and told me that he thought that the rest of them were not as ready to let him go as I must have been. At the time, I thought they were a funny choice of words, as I don’t think I ever felt like that had been about letting him go… it had been about moving him from one place to another. After my grandfather died I saw his presence everywhere, especially at night. He came to me often… some may call it a dream, other perhaps might say it was a ghost or his spirit.
So today, some 37 years later, on All Souls Day, I bought myself a raspberry smoothie, some snacks and took my son to visit the cemetery where my grandfather is buried. I lay my jacket on the grass just below his headstone and we sat down. I took pictures of us as we snacked and I told him stories about Grandpa Honey. How every time he crosses his legs it reminds me of him, and that he would have really liked him because he was an engineer and knew about things with chemistry and physics and loved science. I told him how I had argued, while pregnant, that I wanted to call our unborn child Percy, and Pertz for short. Squink looked over at me and told me that I could call him Percy if I wanted. Squink ran around the cemetery chasing pigeons that were feasting on the winter grass seed. It felt perfect to sit there and just be in a space that is that of my grandfather, watching my son chase birds as he ran through and around different burial plots, causing the flocks to move like waves around us. It was a beautiful All Souls Day for me.
Near the end of our stay at my grandfathers grave-site, I watched several cars drive past us with befuddled looks as they stared at us having a picnic on a grave, one literally with their mouth agape. As I watched an older couple drive past in an older model Cadillac… it hit me, I am not as American as I look. I have a heart full of liberation theology, mixed with indigenous beliefs, my comfort foods can be exotic, my dreams are often in Spanish… all of which I know and understood before… but what hit me in conjunction with that was that my father was not made of this ilk, though he had had a huge part in creating it. I finally, after 37 years, was able to understand why he had forbidden me from going to the funeral.