While I sat on the train to the Mission, I wrote a dissertation on the food I made for Day of the Dead. Between bouts of motion sickness, I laboriously described the various ingredients and the significance of each included vegetable, spice, or seed to particular members of my dead clan. I thought I had today's more personal entry all sketched out.
I went to the Day of the Dead celebration expecting to see my wacky San Francisco decked out in hot colors, flapping with papel picado, and shimmying to foot-itching rhythms. All of that was there, but I barely noticed. I scrambled in and out of the crowd to try to find things to stand on for a better view, or to get around strolling smokers. I spent a good portion of my time attempting to take pictures in the dark–– a mostly fruitless effort, as you may have guessed. I ran into friends that I hadn't seen in over a year, and we chatted about getting together for a potluck dinner soon. I snapped more difficult shots of altars in the unpredictable light, and then I tried to leave the offering I had brought. I thought the experience would just be kind of sweet and fun.
What really happened wasn't earth-shattering, but it did surprise me in its quiet force.
I hunkered down in the wet, short grass with a scrap of paper and a cheap ball-point pen and started to write a message to my dead. I explained that I missed them, that I found that I still needed them in my life, and that I hoped that they didn't mind that I was bringing them food and drink that they may not have tried or loved much in life: beet greens, collard greens, curry leaves, red bell pepper, sweet potato, sweet corn, leek, fennel seeds, pumpkin seeds, white pepper, black pepper, hot sauce, kosher salt, olive oil, green tea with roasted rice, almond tisane with fruit and spices, and a simple, lovely apple. I figured that being dead might be kind of boring, and that they might like a few changes.
I told them that I wasn't too sure about this afterlife stuff, but if there was another chance for them to feel loved, I'd take that opportunity in any form.
I was sniffling my way to the weepy championship by then.
Honestly, my desire to eat vegan food is something my grandparents may have indulged (if they were still around), but not really understood. I wish I could have the conversation about it with them, though. I wish I could have any conversation with them now.
Offering my grandparents another meal reminded me of all the holidays, graduations, birthday parties and family gatherings that they made special. They regularly hosted the entire extended family in their parade of homes, or got excited to make and share giant pancakes on a weekend morning visit, or flew across the country just to be with us, to be with me. I'd love to argue with them over where I'll get my protein, and laugh and waggle jullianned strips of veggies at them during a debate in the kitchen, and ask my grandmother for a recipe while my grandfather blusters on nearby. I'd love to offer my other grandfather a slice of vegan apple pie and see if he can even tell. I'd love to coax him to eat more vegetables, try cumin, and wear sunscreen.
This celebration was as close as I'll ever come to doing all those things with them.
I finally finished the note and and squirmed my way through the milling humans to a shrine at the base of a tree. It was a typical combination of junky and glorious. Garish plastic flowers, fresh real blossoms, glossy photos of parents, children, siblings, and lovers, 100-to-a-bag-style votive candles, handwritten letters, scraps of cloth, tiny plastic toys and all kinds of small gifts and treats were woven between the waving flames and soft, deep shadows. I settled my offerings carefully among the candles and stepped back to see the shining bits glimmer like sequins in a full, swaying skirt.
The dead are thought to eat the essence of the food, and many people eat the offerings afterwards as a picnic shared with their beloveds. I originally intended to do just that. Instead, I left it all there. Maybe somebody hungry will snack on it later tonight, maybe it will end up in a dumpster. I've no idea. I felt a bit lighter when I made my way back through the streets, and it seemed I'd left more behind than just the food. I'd been hungry when I went into the city, but now I felt something like satisfaction.
Next year, I think I'll do it again.