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AustinMama offers up some Daddy props.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein

Chicken Soup for the Dead

Halloween as we know it is only the lingering feeble vestige of an ancient tradition of honoring the spirits of the dead. The dead are pretty important people, if you think about it. Aside from their genetic heritage which we today embody, our comfortable position at the apex of the food chain, our cultures and virtually every field of knowledge is built on the foundation of those who came before us. We build on the bedrock, as it were, of yesterday's graves.

Surviving death is a transformative and inevitable experience. Most of us will mourn the passing, at some time in our lives, of those that nurtured us, taught us and helped shape whom we would become. Evidence of the dead's treatment with reverence predates even our species, in Neanderthal graves festooned with pollen from flowers long since turned to dust. How, then, do I keep my sons' connection to the departed alive, and keep the Celtic holiday of Samhain's focus on something other than plastic boogey men and tooth decay?

The answer, for us at least, is the feast of the dead. Our Halloween is a two staged affair. One parent will accompany our wizard and T-Rex on the perennial quest for sweets while the other cooks and sets a special table with regular interruptions to dispense goodies of our own. With any luck, all will be ready when the ghouls have stopped knocking and the last guests arrive. All comers pass through the symbolic veil to sit at a formal table with black linen napkins (although I have black paper ones with ghosts for the kids if we run out), little skulls and candles and an extra place of honor set at the table's head, where no one will sit.

As we feast, everyone takes turns speaking about someone important to us that has passed away. We eat pot luck, each participant providing one of the deceased's favorite foods in sufficient quantity to go around the table. The empty chair's plate of honor is served first. Some of us will have photos of the person we miss to pass around the table while we tell a heartfelt anecdote about how they touched us. Others might honor someone they never met, like Ghandi or Joseph Campbell, who brought something to our world that we are lessened without. Occasionally, we mourn the lost companionship of an absent pet. Everyone has a chance to speak and be heard with compassion and without judgment. Each place setting has a tea light candle, and after saying whatever you need to say you light yours from the table's central candle in the deceased's name and we share a toast to them. We eat, we laugh, we cry. We relive deep personal memories and hear tales of people we will never meet. The room gradually becomes brighter as more little flames dot the table, and when the serving dishes are empty and we push our chairs back from the table the dumb zombie movies being watched in the city around us pale before the simple dignity of this communion with our dead friends. The remembrance lights are arranged in a careful circle around the place setting that holds a bit of everything that was served, from their favorite dessert to a wine they would have loved. In the morning, when the lights have all burned out, I'll take the offerings to the park and leave them for local critters to scrounge.

Both of my sons are readily able to play a real part in this ritual on their own level. Keefe will fondly remember his grandmother Jessie, lost to us two years ago, and the chocolate cake perennially associated with her will undoubtedly be well received. I remember one year that the cake flipped over onto the oven lid and disfigured itself, so we dressed its uneven surface with wafer thin chocolate tombstones and a gnarly Playmobil tree complete with vulture as if we'd intended it. Keefe may also choose to make a nod to his maternal grandfather Alan, who he never met but with whom he is often compared. Hugh, still less conscious of and sentimental about such things but infinitely familiar with extinction, will offer ham luncheon meat and raise a toast to the mighty king of them all, Tyrannosaurus Rex. For the adults, this can be a more somber event, but it doesn't have to be. If previous years are any indication, the whole evening will have a well-rounded quality, a sort of poignant mirth.

While some who've heard about it condemn this tradition as morbid, I believe it serves the boys well. Death is, after all, an inescapable fact of life, and having a context for it will be a blessing when they are unfortunate enough to be touched by it. In my experience, observances like this demystify death, and strip it of some of its ability to inspire fear. Besides, a bit of formalized remembering keeps old family photo albums from turning into a gallery of strangers. Hugh won't grow up remembering the grandmother who died when he was two, but stories like the time she fell out of the apple tree and broke her leg at age 65 will give him a sense of who she was. It's our stories that ultimately define us, and retelling them is truly the only way I know of keeping memory alive.

Once the children are happily comatose, the livelier adults might do some fortune telling or take a stroll through the local cemetery, but I'll likely be turning back into a pumpkin myself by that time. The next day we'll let the kids tuck into their treats to their hearts' content, constantly waving veggies and proteins at them while they do so, and whatever's left over at the end of the day gets discarded. I like to think the binge will encourage them to know their limits, and it'll certainly do less harm to their teeth and metabolisms than doling the stuff out over months and getting them used to regular infusions. Not for nothing does a woman I know refer to refined sugar as 'kiddie cocaine.'

And then finally, on the badly-needed-for-the-entire-household day of rest that comes thereafter, we'll take down the ghosts and put the skulls back in Hugh's bedroom with the other fossils, and life will return to normal. Having survived to see yet another feast of the dead and snack on the leftovers, our 22-year-old black cat Baptiste will watch the effigies of him that the holiday brings out going back into a box in the basement, thinking unknowable feline thoughts.

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Michael Nabert is a Canadian writer who loves to talk and sing, and writes mainly about parenting, the art of wooing and paleontology. Widely traveled, with an opinion about everything, his friends often describe him as having "a deplorable excess of character." He is currently stay-at-home dad to Hugh and Keefe.  Send feedback for Michael to: poprocks@austinmama.com

 

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