From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

On My Altar

Fall reminds me that time is always moving. It is the time of year when the warm Indian summer hardens into the chilly crunch of early winter. It is a time when change flutters all around us, as the tomatoes and basil in the garden make way for squash and figs. Fall gently nudges me to feel my own mortality, and in doing so, it pushes me to celebrate my life. Feeling the season turn reminds me to drink up, enjoy what is here, right now.

Mexicans have mastered the ability to squeeze the fullness of life from the cold reality of death. On November first, they celebrate Day of the Dead, lifting the delicate veil that separates the dead from the living. Graves are cleaned and adorned with flowers and candles. Altars are built, heavy with incense and cempasúchitl, the pungent marigold, the sweet acrid scents guiding the spirits back home. It is a scene awesome and bittersweet to observe, a day brimming with both life and death.

Day of the Dead honors those who have passed, but for me it also honors the passage of time itself. It demands that I pause, remember, grieve, celebrate, live fully. In savoring the past and grieving for that which is gone, I clear a path for my future.

Each year as October closes, I build my own altar. Last year as I scattered the orange petals across photos of my grandparents and a newspaper from September tenth, I was pregnant with my second child. This year, my family now complete, I balance my baby daughter in the crook of my arm as my son plays with a smiling sugar skull. I smooth the familiar embroidered cloth and acknowledge my once-young self, this body that will never again grow a child. I trim marigold stems, thinking back on life before my children came—driving home at sunrise, wandering through Oaxaca buying old silver, lazing in bed on a Sunday with my husband. Lighting the incense, I wonder about the future. Will my daughter be a musician? Will my son ride horses? Will I ever hold a grand baby? I fill my altar with golden flowers, the keys to a business I once owned, a picture of my round, pregnant belly. These symbols of my own milestones brighten as I light the candles. I breathe in my past, hold it—then let it go.

With young children, there is no ignoring the passing of time. It saunters along as we buy new shoes (again!) and shake our heads at how those pants fit just fine last week. As my baby daughter sprouts into childhood, bittersweet pangs rumble as I pack away her now-too-small ruffley sundresses and doll-sized diapers. I mourn a little when my two-year-old son stops requesting a lullaby each night before bed. I pause for a moment, savoring the scene: my daughter crawling toward my son, who zooms his toy train past her. They both erupt in giggles. Then I taste future memories—watching my son fly away without wobbly training wheels, hunting for meteors on a dark night with my teenagers in the high Sierras, rejoicing as a mortarboard is flung into the air.

I watch as my memories play back, a kaleidoscope of one thing becoming another. I entered adulthood on a Mexican adventure, which became a business in San Francisco selling folk art. I traded that business for motherhood and a home with a delicious garden in Berkeley. As my children grow, I find myself ripening into a writer. The cycle continues; endings become beginnings. And today, as I pull the last tomatoes from their sprawling gangly vine, I look both back and ahead, feeling the turn of the clock.

As the days grow shorter, I bow to the passage of time. I am grateful for the fall harvest: magnificent squashes, warm, spicy soups, sensuous persimmons, dripping with juice. Savoring the delicacies of this brief season, knowing that they are ripe only for the moment, makes them that much richer. I want to drink fully, open-throated. Winter approaches, the wheel keeps turning, my son learns to whistle, my daughter sleeps through the night. I find a gray hair and, smiling, set it aside for my altar next year.

Suzanne LaFetra

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