dia de los muertos

Last night we bundled up the baby in an old woolly jacket of Cian’s and trundled her down to 24th & Bryant. The scent of burning sage made our tummies rumble. There were Mission hipsters with their faces painted to show the skull beneath the skin, and Aztec dancers with elaborate feathered headdresses and bells on their ankles. A jazz band marched, all in white, with a white-faced bride dancing ahead of them, whirling like a dervish. Twelve skeletons formed another marching band, all of crisp loud drums. There were more skeletons on stilts, with flowered sombreros, the deranged love-children of Manny Calavera and Carmen Miranda. My favourite band is the medieval one with the recorders and wooden xylophones and the coffin all decked out in lace; straight out of Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal and into my neighbourhood, eerie and beautiful, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

The only year I’ve missed it was last year, when I was hugely pregnant. The truth is, I always wander down and then stand there feeling like a complete idiot in my Gap jeans and Blundstones, the most middle-class white girl in all history. But the Day of the Dead is one of the things I love best about the Mission. I have no idea who organizes it or how they get the Pabst-swilling loft dwellers and the liquid-eyed Incas to play nicely together for just one night of the year, so it seems almost magically spontaneous to me, as though the truck loaded with flowered crosses drives itself to the corner of Bryant & 24th from its usual parking space in the Land of the Dead.

With the honourable exception of my mother, I grew up among people uniquely squeamish about death (and, indeed, most other basic truths of the human condition). One day when I was little, Mum took a day off work for a behind-the-scenes tour of the Northern Suburbs Crematorium. She came home and told us all very cheerfully that when she dies, she would like to be cremated and have her ashes scattered at sea. She also left clear instructions not to overspend on the coffin or flowers. She’s the Jessica Mitford of Sydney’s Northern Beaches, is my ma.

I miss her awful these days (she’s in Australia, Winnebago-ing the outback, and frequently out of mobile phone reception areas), but the juxtaposition of the cheesy papier-mache skeletons for sale at Galeria de la Raza and the tear-stained women holding pictures of their dear dead reliably conjures her up. I’m glad that Claire’s first home is the crazy, messy Mission, where the Hogfather takes to the streets banging on a drum. I’d like my girl to walk in the benevolent presence of the ancestor-spirits who endowed her with their wily, resourceful DNA. I want her to take joy in all this, because naturally, the very second she was born, I started to hanker after grandchildren of my own…

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