Who Eats Better?!
My family has a favorite memory of my father. Each day during meals, whether we were eating filet mignon or week-old tuna casserole, whether it was he and I enjoying a quiet lunch or a crowded family table, he would utter the words, “Who eats better?!” To this day, we treasure that practice and say it during our family meals often toasting each other and sharing a good laugh.
And so it goes with memories. Sometimes they are grand events like weddings or holidays, but more often they are small, seemingly insignificant bits that don’t matter much at first glance. You may not have even registered them as important at all until that loved one is gone. Then those bits and pieces become evident as the little missing parts of a whole. In fact, those flashes of remembering are usually the ones that wash over you unexpectedly and cause you to cry a little, or chuckle, or feel the deepest love there is no matter how much time has passed.
My altar for the beautiful tradition of Day of the Dead celebrates these small memories of the loved ones in my family and those of my husband, Joel. Its base is a Formica table that held many family dinners during my growing-up years. Each place setting represents one or more family members, each adorned with mementos that speak to who they were and why they’re so dear…the little bits and pieces that make up the whole. It’s definitely crowded at the table, but dinner tables usually are, particularly when filled with memories. And it’s loud!
I envision them laughing (or ‘howling’ as my Dad used to say), telling the stories and the jokes that we still tell around our dinner table today. Joel’s ancestors would sing Ein Prosit with gusto and then mine would follow with the Irish ballad, Danny Boy. Surely my Croatian grandparents’ homemade wine would be passed around as well as some aromatic fresh-baked breads and pies from Myrtle and Mamie. Emmy would have shared a tater tot casserole and Grandma Louise her fried chicken. Kurt would have fetched the ice cream from the basement for dessert.
There might be a few cigarettes and pipes smoked as the dishes were cleared away and the playing cards came out – sheepshead for the Wisconsin gang, solitaire for Grandma Ada, bridge for Glee and Al. The Cubs would be playing on the radio (a favorite even for the Wisconsin folks before the Milwaukee Brewers came to be) and bowling and golf scores embellished. Politics would no doubt come up and even though those present span from the early 20th century to the early 21st, the conversation would flow pretty smoothly. Things really don’t change that much, right?
I’ve spent the last month immersed in the souls of these amazing people. This isn’t an unusual thing for me. I’m accustomed to immersing myself in the history of our families. The Irish are committed to their lineages and it’s not uncommon to have a reunion nearby the old settlement’s cemetery so we can wander amidst the gravestones, telling stories at each one…stories of immigration, hardship, family, and tradition. My Croatian lineage is being uncovered bit by bit every day thanks to a wonderful web of genealogy resources and some eager siblings. And Joel comes from a family of storytellers who are dedicated to remembering the little bits and pieces that make their loved ones’ presence very alive.
Author Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes recently said,
“Most all of us came from people who came across land bridges and big water to be ‘here.’ Let us remember they often thought of us who were yet to come, that many of their acts were so that we could have a chance to live on more level ground, more abundant ground, more free.”
It seems natural to want to know the people who came before me. Those who thought of me, suffered for me, took chances for me, many without knowing me. And it seems natural to envision them at this table, rubbing elbows, sharing family love, and, of course, toasting us. Blessing us. Relishing the chance to gather together and declare,
“Who eats better!?!”