Lit/South Awards 2022
Stephanie Elizondo Griest
Día de Muertos
When my mother called me back to my father’s sickbed, I was at a dinner party 550 miles away. Another guest took one look at my shaking shoulders and offered to drive me there. It was nearly 10 p.m. by the time I had thrown mismatched clothes in a suitcase and locked up the house where I’d spent the previous two weeks at a writing retreat.
As we peeled out of Marfa, Texas, the night air filled with skunk. I breathed it in deeply, like Dad would do. Once, when he was a little boy, his dog got sprayed while they were romping around the park. He claimed to love the stench afterward, as it induced that and other memories of his Kansan childhood: of watching his mother mash potatoes in the kitchen, of riding sleighs with his brother at Christmas, of pounding the beat in the high school marching band, of delivering newspapers under the rising sun.
The Mexican in me knew this skunk was a sign, then. I spent the next 545 miles trying not to interpret it.
If I were a proper Mexican daughter, there wouldn’t have been any frantic driving through the night. I never would have left home in the first place. But wanderlust is a Griest inheritance. My great-great-uncle Jake was a hobo who saw all of America with his legs dangling over the edge of a freight train. Dad won a seat with a U.S. Navy jazz ensemble as soon as he graduated high school and spent 15 years drumming for admirals and presidents on aircraft carriers around the world.
One night, while Dad was performing at a nightclub in Corpus Christi, a beautiful young Tejana walked in. He introduced himself at intermission by accidentally spilling his Coke all over her shoes. He led her backstage and gently wiped them clean. They got married three months later. His next gig was Mardi Gras, and the only way her parents would let her accompany him was as his bride. Tía Benita stayed up all week sewing the white satin dress.
Mom’s family had migrated from the foothills of Tamaulipas, Mexico, to a cattle ranch in South Texas in the late 1800s. Among the ancestral traditions they retained was the one tasking the youngest daughter with eldercare. Tía Alicia was so devoted to Abuela, she never even had a family of her own. So Mom caused an escándalo when she absconded to the Northeast with Dad for eight years before landing a job at IBM back in Corpus. She then broke not only Mexican but American conventions by becoming the family breadwinner while her husband stayed home with their two little girls.
Dad turned us into travelers early, buckling Barbara and me into the seat on the back of his bicycle as soon as we could hold our heads up straight. After school, he would whisk us off to Port Aransas to see the porpoises or to Rockport to climb on the jetties, and every summer, he packed up the van for a road trip to Mesa Verde, the Redwood Forest, or the Grand Tetons with John Denver crooning through the tape deck. When we started developing interests of our own, he always offered to be our chauffeur. He once drove my friend Shea and me 240 miles to a U2 concert—“Achtung Baby” blasting through the speakers—waited in the parking lot for four and a half hours, and then drove us 240 miles home. By the time I reached college, my wanderlust was raging. I majored in the language of the farthest country I could fathom—Russia—and jetted off to Moscow to become a foreign correspondent. Since then, I have explored nearly 50 countries and lived in 15 different cities.
If I thought about it from my (Griest) vantage point, then, it was weirdly appropriate to be eight hours away when Mom called me home. There was nothing Dad loved more than a drive.
Racing into the dark night, though, I felt wholly Elizondo, and regretted every mile.
Our last big family trip was in 2010, to Dad’s bucket list destination: Alaska. That’s where I first started noticing his happy-go-lucky personality was changing. He demanded to be in bed by five each night, not because he was tired, but because he deemed the rule unbreakable. We couldn’t convince him otherwise. Ditto with his insistence on arriving to places before they even opened. And he kept asking the same questions again and again and again.
One afternoon, we spontaneously decided to have a cook-out at a campground near Seward. It was raining by the time we found a store that sold hot dogs and marshmallows. Huddled around the grill, I realized that everyone was wearing the same color rain jacket—royal blue—except Dad. His was white. With his white hair and white beard, he looked like a cloud in our family sky. I breathed in the serenity of being surrounded by everyone I loved most.
Then I noticed that my 12-year-old niece was showing Dad how to turn his stick into a spit. This man who had provided every meal of my childhood seemed mystified by the concept of roasting. After lunch, we set off for a nearby waterfall. As I lingered behind to take our photograph, I saw how difficult the trail was for Dad to navigate. This man who had played tennis five mornings a week for half a century no longer knew where to put his feet. Mom finally grabbed him by the elbow, because this man who had driven us hundreds of thousands of miles across America now needed steering. I exhaled the first of the infinity of losses.
Barreling down the county road that curved along the Mexico border, it occurred to me that my impromptu driver bore a passing resemblance to Dad. They had the same beard and penchant for wearing denim shirts. They also shared a remarkable stamina for driving. In 550 miles, he stopped only twice, both times for gas.
Mom had warned us this could be a fire drill. One of her cousins had recently flown from Seattle to Corpus five times on a moment’s notice, only to witness her previously comatose mother revive. Mom predicted this would be the case with Dad, too, especially since his Aunt Maude spent more than a decade in a vegetative state before succumbing to the disease they shared: Alzheimer’s. I personally doubted he’d make it to 2020, but was reasonably optimistic he’d endure the summer. I last saw him on Father’s Day weekend, prior to departing for Marfa. I spoon-fed him his favorite soup—asparagus pureed with sour cream and lemon—before entertaining him with YouTube videos. It had been a while since his last coherent sentence, but he said “That’s so cute” at the sight of a baby panda bear trying to climb out of a trashcan. Efforts to engage him in further conversation went nowhere, though, and he soon fell asleep.
The next day, Mom and I wheeled his chair onto the patio, where I announced it was time for music. Grandma Griest had discovered 80 years earlier that if she gave Dad a wooden spoon, he would happily whack a pan for hours. Besides his childhood paper route, he had never earned a paycheck for anything besides his music. Alzheimer’s had transformed his drumming from a livelihood to a lifeline: as long as he could find the rhythm, we knew he was still there.
Dad’s hands had curled into fists weeks ago, but there seemed to be enough room for a drumstick. I slid one in until it felt secure, then raised up a book beneath it. Nothing happened. I tapped the drumstick for encouragement. Still nothing. And then he closed his eyes. Mom and I looked at each other and sighed.
Growing up, she was the one with whom I had struggled to communicate. Every morning as I waited for Dad to fix my breakfast, Mom would swoop into the kitchen wearing a power suit with shoulder pads, gulp down some Folger’s, and dash out the door in high heels. She didn’t return until nightfall, and we all knew not to bug her until she’d completed the crossword puzzle. If one of her relatives called, however, she’d smile with her entire being. She always took the phone out onto the porch, but her laughter rang out above the TV. Spanish sounded like the ultimate comedy show, only the rest of us weren’t in on the jokes. That’s because Mom grew up in an era where teachers would shove a bar of soap in your mouth if they caught you speaking Spanish in the classroom. Then she married a gringo who knew only two words: taco and vámonos. She never taught Barbara or me how to speak her native tongue, since she didn’t want to linguistically divide our home. Whenever we visited Abuela, we sat around mute—until it was time to eat, or go.
Just then, I remembered the chant Dad used to teach his beginner drum students. “BOOM get a rat-trap/bigger than a cat-trap/BOOM!” I sang out. His eyes fluttered open. A long moment passed. Then he faintly tapped back.
We pulled up to the care facility at 5:44 am. My impromptu driver stepped out to give me a hug, accepted the only thing I had to give (bruised bananas), and then drove 550 miles back to Marfa.
“Daddy, I’m here,” I called out as I entered his room. His expression did not change, but there was movement beneath his blanket. I lifted up a corner and his fist raised in greeting. I wrapped one of my hands around it, then caressed his skeletal face with the other. His indigo eyes were wide open. Peering into them, I chanted words of love and gratitude. At some point in the four hours that ensued, Barbara—who’d taken a quick nap after driving in from San Antonio at midnight—took the place of Mom, who’d been keeping vigil for 24 hours and wanted a shower. Holding our dad in our arms, my sister and I played his favorite songs. John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High.” Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow.” Frank Sinatra. Then I cued up the song we loved to sing while Dad played the piano when we were little: Simon & Garfunkel’s “59th Street Bridge Song.” Moments after the chorus had ended—“Life, I love you / All is groovy”—a nurse walked in. I peeled my eyes away from Dad’s to ask how much time we had. A couple of days, she said. His skin wasn’t mottling yet. His legs were warm. His vitals had stabilized. There was still—
Barbara gasped. I looked down. Dad was gone.
Two nights before Mom called us home, I was sitting on the porch with a glass of white wine, enjoying a desert breeze after a long day of writing, when I saw movement in a cluster of nopales. First one, then two, then three little bodies bounded over, a blur of black and white. Skunks! It wouldn’t have been more surprising if they were wolverines—and they were headed straight toward me. Without thinking, I stood up and greeted them.
“Well, hello there!”
Immediately they halted. We stared at each other for half a second before they made a collective U-turn and scampered off in the opposite direction.
I wanted to stay with my father until his body had turned completely cold. When informed I could not do that, I started wailing. Promptly, I was silenced. Seven other residents were on the other side of the thin walls. I must not frighten them. Okay, I gasped. I stifled my cries until we had stepped outside the care facility, then let loose. But no: the facility was located in a residential neighborhood. I had to be quiet there, too, so as not to wake the neighbors. Okay. I waited until we pulled into the driveway behind our house. Dad had turned the garage into a man cave before that term was even invented. A train set ran around the ping-pong table. Sinatra posters plastered the walls. Hot air balloons dangled from the ceiling. The sight of Dad’s drum set is what buckled my knees, though. For the third time, I started wailing. But this was deemed inappropriate, too. Someone lifted me by the shoulders and steered me inside the house. By the time I made it to the living room couch, where wailing presumably was permitted, I couldn’t. My cries were stuck inside me.
Eight days after burying my father’s ashes, I unlocked my condo in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and anxiously unzipped my suitcase. To my relief, his old snare drum had survived the flight. It had hung in the garage for decades, and when we pulled it down after the funeral, Mom and I were surprised to find the remnants of a bumper sticker that said MIDWESTERN MUSIC AND ART CAMP 1954 in faded script. Dad would have been 17 then, preparing for his audition for the Navy. I placed the drum in the corner of my office, then continued unpacking until I came across his dog tag. We had found enough of these engraved tin plates in Dad’s dresser for each family member to take one home. Where should I put mine? I circled my house a few times before setting it atop the drum for safekeeping. Ditto with my eulogy, which I rolled like a scroll. Then a neighbor knocked on the door, proffering a bag of my mail. Sympathy cards awaited inside, so lovely, I couldn’t just toss them into a box. I stacked them atop the drum, but that wasn’t right either, since only the top one was visible, so I fanned them out in a half-moon around the drum. This made my eyes sting. I went to the kitchen to brew some tea, then halted at the cabinet. I had celebrated my birthday before flying down to Texas, and hung the roses I’d received upside down from the cabinet’s handle.
Dad sent us roses every single Valentine’s Day of our lives. Grabbing the dried flowers, I hurried back to the office and laid one between each card. Then I took the large framed photograph I’d been given by the funeral home—Dad in a denim shirt, smiling on the Alaskan railroad—and propped it atop the drum, along with votive candles.
This was not a ritual I had observed in childhood. Mom kept photos of family who’d died atop the piano, but that was the extent of ancestral veneration in our home. Like many Mexican traditions I now uphold, I learned about altars from books by Laura Esquivel and Gloria Anzaldúa, from college courses like “Chicano Politics” and “The History of Mexican-Americans in Texas,” and above all, from my travels. I briefly wondered if it was appropriate to honor Dad this way, given his ambivalence to Mexican culture, but before I knew it, I was talking to his photograph. This made me laugh. A year before Dad entered the care facility, Mom told me that she’d overheard him chatting away in his bedroom one night. At first, she thought he was on the phone, but then remembered he had forgotten how to use it long ago. When she opened his door to ask what he was doing, he said, “Talking to Stephanie,” then tapped my framed photo.
Mexico bewildered me when I was little. I couldn’t understand why the landscape changed so drastically when we walked across the international bridge from Laredo to Nuevo Laredo. Suddenly, the sidewalk broke apart. There were blind men strumming guitars on the street corners. Women pushed heavy carts of candied fruit swarming with bees. Barefoot children sold boxes of Chiclets. By the time we reached our first stop—Marti’s, Mom’s favorite department store—I had already distributed my allowance into a succession of outstretched palms. By high school, Mexico was the place where I bought Retin-A for my acne and sneaked sips from Mom’s margarita when she wasn’t looking. Boys at school teased each other about getting laid there. They swore prostitutes had sex with donkeys there. That—coupled with the fact that we were never taught anything about Mexicans in school besides their murdering of Davy Crockett at the Alamo—made me leery of my ancestral land, indeed.
Once I started traveling around the former Eastern Bloc while based in Moscow, however, I learned that you cannot judge a nation by its border towns (or, equally enlightening, by how it is portrayed in a Texas public school). Russia is also where I learned that many Soviets so revered their native culture, they had risked being banished to the Gulag for their efforts to preserve it. Soon after returning to Texas, I enrolled in an intensive Spanish course, then invited Mom on a trip to Mexico City, my first to the interior. Beholding its glories—the Mayan codices at Museo Nacional de Antropología, the splendor of La Casa Azul, the murals of Palacio de Bellas Artes, the Aztec pyramid bursting through the zócalo—committed me to maintaining our family’s ties there, especially when I met our last living relatives in Monterrey. They were in their seventies and had just two grandsons, both of whom pined to live in El Norte.
By the time I turned 30, Mexico was the subject of almost everything I wrote. I spent much of 2005-2006 bouncing around from Queretaro to Oaxaca to San Cristóbal de las Casas, trying to decide which city I loved best so I could move there. But then, in 2007, the United States’ insatiable hunger for drugs plunged Mexico into narco war. Nearly 300,000 Mexicans died or disappeared in the decade that ensued. The violence slashed countless dreams, mine included.
In my forties, though, my own life imploded when I got diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The first place I flew when my oncologist promised it would no longer compromise my immune system was Mexico. It healed me in ways that chemo could not. Which is why, 17 days after burying my father, I booked a flight to Oaxaca for Día de Muertos.
I arrived to Oaxaca late at night in the driving rain. When I awoke the next morning, the city was gleaming with cempasúchiles. The orange-gold blossoms had been strung on ribbons that cascaded from rooftops, arched above doorways, and dangled from trees, and the rain had scattered their petals across the cobblestones, so that every road was golden. I bought an armload from the first seller I encountered and hurried back to the room I had rented. After pulling off each blossom, I lined them along the dresser, across the windowsill, and inside each of the shelves, then sprinkled a handful of petals atop the photo I’d brought of Dad, along with his dog tag.
From what I had read, a pueblo called Xoxocotlán was renowned for Día de Muertos festivities on October 31, so I booked an excursion from a pop-up travel agency downtown. One of the many options the agency offered was a “concurso de altares.” Misinterpreting this as a lecture on altar-making, I plunked down an extra 100 pesos. Instead, the concurso entailed trotting alongside a massive comparsa—or Día de Muertos parade of twirling puppets, marching bands, ladies dancing with pineapples, and teenage boys launching bottle rockets into the sky—for five and a half miles until we reached the shuttle that took us on to Xoxocotlán. We arrived at 10 p.m. to a mob scene. Día de Muertos fell on a weekend that year, so tens of thousands of Mexicans had sailed in from throughout the country, while the smash-hit movie “Coco” had reeled in tens of thousands of foreigners. Seemingly every last one had painted their face like a skull, complete with rhinestones around their eye sockets and a black-tipped nose. Our tour guide cast us into the ghoulish sea, saying she’d wait for us by the stage, where a concert was underway. Before I could verify a time, I got caught in a wave that beached me at the cemetery gate. Walking across the threshold, I gasped. Every single tomb was outlined with flickering candles. Amidst the trails of cempasúchil petals, the cemetery glowed like a city of gold—albeit, one on the verge of siege. Bands of drunken skeletons stopped at every tomb to snap a selfie, despite the fact that a bereaved family had gathered there, the widows draped in black rebozos, the children clutching pan de muerto. The graves were so close together, many were getting trampled. It felt so disrespectful, I tried to leave, but the crowds propelled me forward, forward, forward, until I finally veered off at a tomb surrounded by an especially large family. The matriarch looked up from what might have been her husband’s grave. Reaching into my backpack, I pulled out the bag of pan de muerto I had brought from Oaxaca and handed it to her.
“Just one?” she asked.
“It’s all for you,” I said, then hailed the next wave toward the exit.
Traveling in Mexico had taught me that the schizophrenia of being biracial, of straddling two worlds but belonging to neither, might be the most Mexican thing about me. Mexicans have been struggling to navigate their blending of indigenous and Spanish bloodlines for 500 years now. The single most uniting fact of our Mexicanidad is that it is a negotiation for us all. Some aspects of our identity, we inherit; others, we must pursue.
That, at least, was how I tried to rationalize spending $67 on a “Day of the Dead Ceremony” I found on Airbnb. Yes, it made me feel like a fraud. But what was my alternative? Our last remaining family member in Monterrey had died three years prior. We weren’t in touch with her grandchildren, so I couldn’t go spend the holiday with them. I had also lost contact with the Oaxaqueños I’d befriended on earlier visits. Besides, this was how I had learned many aspects of my culture: if not from a trip, then a class. If not from a film, then a book. How will we ever recover from colonization, but to reclaim what we can, where we can, how we can, with hopes that our culture might better reauthenticate in the next generation?
It proved to be surprisingly moving, joining nine strangers around an altar inside the home of a Mixtec curandera—especially when two turned out to be Chicanas like me. Together, we wrote down the names of those we mourned on slips of paper, placed them on an earthen tray, and breathed. Sprinkled cempasúchil petals and breathed. Lit candles and breathed. Burned copal and breathed. Drank from a gourd of mezcal and breathed. Dunked pieces of pan de muerto inside mugs of hot chocolate and breathed. Listened and cried and told stories and laughed and breathed.
By the time the ceremony had ended, I was emotionally spent, yet rallied to join the Chicanas on an excursion to Oaxaca’s main cemetery, Panteón San Miguel, anyway. I braced myself for another mob scene, but the only crowds were the families who had come to grieve. They encircled the graves of their dead, scrubbing down the crypts with sudsy water and stringing papel picado from the trees. Every tomb had been decorated with photographs as well as treats—bottles of mezcal, packs of cigarettes, chocolates, tamales wrapped in banana leaves, jars of mole—plus row upon row of cempasúchil blossoms. One extended family was blasting ranchera from a boom box. Padres were dancing with hijas, tías with tíos, primas with primos, mamis with each other.
For most of my life, Dad said he wanted to be buried in his hometown of Minneapolis, Kansas. He even bought a plot there, right next to his parents, and inscribed the headstone with his and Mom’s names and birth dates. Over the years, however, he seemed to realize that Barbara and I would visit more often if they were buried in Texas, and then Corpus opened a new veterans cemetery. Ever a fan of a 21-gun salute, Dad reserved a plot for Mom and himself, and that is where we buried him. Though heartened my parents would be easier to visit, I was crushed to read the cemetery’s regulations. Only flags and flowers were allowed as devotional items, and none could be taller than the (identical) headstones. Never would I be able to decorate my parents’ graves as lovingly—which is to say, as Mexicanly—as all the families were doing around me.
Something pulled inside my chest. Bidding farewell to the Chicanas, I slipped into the crowd. The cemetery was labyrinthine, but I could see a back wall beyond the roving mariachis. I was side-stepping a crypt when my phone vibrated. I looked down to see photographs from Kansas flickering across the screen. It took a moment to remember that Barbara and her husband were driving to Iowa for a conference that day, and had planned to visit Minneapolis along the way. One photo was of the store where Grandma Griest bought Dad’s drum set some 65 years before.
Nearby was a slab of abandoned concrete. I plunked down just in time before the long-stifled wail came surging out. It soared above the dump where everyone was tossing the stems of decapitated cempasúchiles, above the water spigot where mamis filled their scrub buckets, above each and every crypt. No one minded, for if there was ever a time or a place to bawl in public, it was November 2 at Panteón San Miguel. And so I sobbed until my eyeballs threatened to slip from their sockets, until I felt faint from exhaustion, before staggering away from my perch.
Maybe 20 feet away was a tomb presided over by a man with a slicked-back shock of white hair, wearing a guayabera. He was holding onto the top of his cane so that he could sit upright, and his family was gathered around him. When my eyes met his, he solemnly nodded. He could tell my heart felt a little bit lighter. And suddenly, it did.
This essay was first published in the anthology
Nepantla Familias: A Mexican-American Anthology of Literature on Families in between Worlds, edited by Sergio Troncoso (Texas A&M University Press, 2021).