Still Life With Flowers
The fire sputters as cold rain drizzles down the 90 year old chimney, while I unpack a trunk full of grinning, glittery skeletons, bone white skulls of sticky, pressed sugar, the decorations for Day of the Dead. I never know just how my altar will turn out. I select armloads of flowers, letting my mind and eyes wander, to see where the color and texture and scent of the cut beauties leads me.
Every year my altar is different, and every year I wonder what it will hold in the future. I set out the pictures of the family ghosts, and zip forward to an imagined future. Will my husband’s freckled smile grace this table next year? Will I sprinkle fiery orange marigold petals across pictures of my parents? How many funerals will I attend between now and the future? A friend once told me that each year, we pass by what will be the anniversary of our death, unknowing. Day of the Dead reminds me. I cannot know, but I feel the sharp poke of the spur, reminding me that it will come.
When I began the tradition of building an altar for El Dia de los Muertos, I was fifteen years younger, unscarred by death. My altar that year held the collar of my dog, Coyoacan, who died from a snakebite. A few years later, my grandmother’s photo joined the incense and marigolds. Over the years, my altar has held the keys to a failed business, a newspaper from September 11, a picture of my gray cat, who died on Christmas Day. Each year, my altar becomes more crowded; the flowers tucked around memories of what is no more.
The amaranth is wrapped in a cone of newspaper, and I tear it open, to see headlines of the war, two weeks old. I unwrap large, drooping olive branches, a prayer for peace. For the soldiers, there are pussywillows, stalks of corn, spiny artichokes and marigolds. For their mothers, baby’s breath and olives, forgiveness and healing. The war is making my altar spikier, more dangerous.
I slice open the plastic cellophane of a dozen tiny black roses, Black Baccara, they’re called, their fingernail-sized buds a deep blackish purple. These are for Julien, my friend Naomi’s three-year-old son, who died of leukemia on a perfect spring morning. With red-handled clippers I shear away the thorns and leaves, and poke the skinny stems into a thin necked vase. To this I add baby’s breath, surrounding the roses in snowy white. I hate baby’s breath but somehow, I felt the altar needed it this year, that I needed it this year, that maybe Naomi needed it this year. My stomach knots when I begin to imagine her pain. Julien’s death is making my altar more ominous.
I put another piece of paper, folded, at the back of the altar. This tiny chart is what I used to determine my exact ovulation, so that we could time our sex for pregnancy. My husband had a vasectomy this year; there will be no more babies. There will be only older children, then teenagers, then adults, then only silences between phone calls. I put four stems of pussywillows in a copper vase, blue with age. Then I tuck in tuberose, so sweet smelling it is almost unpleasant. My children growing up is making my altar complicated.
I set out a picture of Rob, who was my lover in college. He died last winter on a basketball court, his heart stopped just as he made a layup, one sneaker untied. I imagine him staring into the blue sky, feeling his life slip away. He was forty, the same age I am now. A creased obituary from my hometown newspaper sits next to a grinning sugar skull. Darien was our high school’s majorette, and she died last month, her breasts filled with cancer. People my age die, I am realizing. People I know. I balance long, twisted willow branches in the corners of my altar, and one tips, then falls. Age is making my altar more precarious.
I pull peppery petals from the cempasuchitl flowers, making a fist-sized pile of orange. I shape this into a heart, and light another candle, setting it right in the middle. I sit back on my haunches, and let it flow into me. The ache of time passing, the pain of humanness and mortality, the bittersweet knowledge that we are all just muddling through, that there is no escaping our mortal coil. And squatting in front of my altar, I hear the carillon bells of the clock tower a few blocks away. The bells toll, and for a moment I am frozen, knowing that someday my image will be on our family altar, too.
And then, I hear my kids splashing in the bathtub, hear my husband holler at that them that the floor’s getting soaked. And I uncover my face, and feel the deep pull in my breasts to be with them, to bound upstairs to the wet, joyful chaos that is my life.
I lift up the last bunch of flowers, shaggy sunflowers in a brown paper cone. I’ve never included this happy flower on my altar before; they seemed too zealous, like they’re trying too hard. But I bought them today without knowing why, and now I stick their impossibly long stems into a tall, wide vase, and balance them in the very center of the altar. They stand alert at the back, sunny reminders that I must not forget to notice the color and scent of the beauty around me, even though the flowers themselves are dying, even though this is a memorial to the dead. I see those bobbing, smiling heads and remember that this is what we have, and it has to be enough.
And then I run upstairs and rub my children with yellow towels, their warm pink skin turning pinker, and each one tells me all the reasons they do not want to go to bed. All that they haven’t yet done. All that they haven’t explored. All that they haven’t finished. All that they haven’t even started. All that they ache for — more time. Please, more time.
“I know,” I tell my daughter in her perfect, curving ear. “I know,” I whisper to my son, when he asks for the flashlight.