Dia de los Muertos: Spending Quality Time with Grandma

The day started with a text from my mom saying she and dad were making breakfast, and it would be ready by 10am. Breakfast is my family’s favorite meal. Steaming coffee brewed with sticks of cinnamon, longaniza cooked in chile, fried eggs, and tortillas warmed on the comal are staples of a Sunday morning in our house.

I got there early, and my parents and I talked over our cups of coffee. We had a discussion about what “quality time” means. My mom’s friend told her that there was no such thing -2as “quality time” but just time. I retorted that quality time meant talking, doing an activity, being with them in space but also mind.

“Like when you and P made cookies together the other day,” I told her, and she agreed.

When my niece and nephew arrived, I had found a sweet Dia de los Muertos short on FB. We snugged together on the couch to watch the short on my laptop, which I had brought with me to prepare for a reading later that night.

When it was done I asked, “Wasn’t that sweet?”

“Yeah,” my nephew said smiling.

“So we have to remember Lela today,” I instructed.

“Of course! She’s my favorite person,” he said in the present tense with all the love in the world, and I gulped back tears.

“She’s my favorite person too.”

Later that day back at my own house, I asked my roommate to paint a calaca on my face for a reading I was going to in the evening. She’s a makeup artist, and I knew her work would look a hundred times better than anything I tried. She asked if I wanted half or full makeup. I said half, and I thought about the short again and how on this day we are all half with the living and half with the dead, and I was thankful for the opportunity to be closer to my grandmother.-1

The reading was in a neighborhood backyard in Los Feliz. The yard was lit up with white lights strung from brimming fig and pomegranate trees. There was an altar set up with candles, persimons, and guavas. Grandma’s house had a guava tree. I remember once I asked her for a guava, but I said, “guava” with a Spanish accent, and she looked at me confused. I had forgotten that guava is actually said, “why-aba.”-3

At the altar, I placed a photo of her holding me as a toddler, the only photo I know of just the two of us, along with a tin of Almond Rocas and a Budweiser tall can for my tata.

I didn’t grow up celebrating Dia de los Muertos, but I also didn’t have people to remember as a child. As I looked at the photo of my grandmother lit by candles on the altar, I remembered how her face was shrouded in death in her final hours, and how quickly I recognized la muerte’s face over her’s.  I  remember how I gave her multiple kisses goodbye and how soft and warm her cheek felt, and how I wished I had kissed her more over the years. Thinking back now, I hope my kisses eased her journey.

Grandparents, experts of quality time, are the first to teach us lessons of loss and remembering.

A poem for my grandparents:

Ode to Pan Dulce

When I bathe you in the aguas termales of my coffee,
and you happily soak in the heat and steam,

what more can I do but place you on my tongue
and recibirte como un sacrament?

Your warmth radiates from my mouth
lighting the esquinas oscuras of my mind

where I find my tata bien sentada on his corner stool
in the little pistachio kitchen in Boyle Heights.

Ojos brillantes, sugar dusting white stubble, he laughs.
Here his sonrisa grows and cancer never curls lips.

Panecito mio, lightweight and delicate in my palm,
pájaro about to fly, I want save you in tissue

like chile de arbol picked from the yard already wrinkling.
Like unraveling yarn-end of sueños that tangle on wake

I throw myself into an embrace with a long dead friend.
I notice his favorite red jacket and think, Where have you been?

This is how you are panecito. A perfect holy circle
filling my hungry soul with lost loves that now and again regresan.

You are the warm silence that filled the air between
grandma leyendo oraciones and me reading poems.

You are Tata’s booming laugh. You are the Español swimming
in my mind. You are one single moment, a bite.

12193481_10154304027992892_4869494014947637134_nThank you to the hosts, Lauren Eggert-Crowe and Myriam Gurba, for creating such a beautiful space and event for remembering and honoring. Thank you to the other readers, Wendy Ortiz, Zoe Ruiz, Olga García Echeverría, and Ashaki M. Jackson, for sharing their words and stories.


About xochitljulisa

Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is the daughter of Mexican immigrants and author of Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge (Sundress Publications 2016). A former Steinbeck Fellow, Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange winner and Barbara Deming Memorial Fund grantee, she’s received residencies from Hedgebrook, Ragdale, National Parks Arts Foundation and Poetry Foundation. Her work is published in Acentos Review, CALYX, crazyhorse, and American Poetry Review among others. A dramatization of her poem "Our Lady of the Water Gallons," directed by Jesús Salvador Treviño, can be viewed at latinopia.com. She is a member Miresa Collective and director of Women Who Submit.
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