The sky was gray and overcast as Mary made her way in the car, her six year old daughter, Martha, singing softly to herself in the back seat. Their trip had been delayed and Mary was afraid they wouldn’t have enough time to spend with her husband, Larry and their son Jesse. The car was packed with a basket of food, a blanket, a bucket with cleaning supplies inside, and a large jug of water. The scent of marigolds enveloped the car.
“Are we almost there Mommy?”
“How will we remember the spot? How will we find Daddy and Jesse? We haven’t been here in a while. We haven’t been here since . . .”
“I know where to go, I haven’t forgotten.”
Mary cut her daughter off. She knew painfully well where she had to go to meet her husband and son.
They drove on in silence, Martha acutely aware of the tension rising within her mother. Mary turned into a gated entrance, and then slowly wove her way down a narrow roadway. She made two left turns, then pulled the car over to the shoulder of the road and turned off the engine. She looked out the window, her eyes searching for a familiar landmark.
“Is this it Mommy?"
“Yes, sweetie, we’re here."
“Where are they? I don’t see them?"
“We have to get out and look for them. Help me get the things out of the trunk.”
Mary unbuckled Martha from her car seat, went to the back of the car and opened the trunk. She handed her daughter the blanket and the bucket, and grabbed the basket of food, the water and the two pots of marigolds, one yellow, one bright orange. She had to put the basket in the crook of her elbow and hold both pots of flowers tight against her chest, the jug of water clenched in her fist.
She pointed with her head down a narrow row.
“I think they’re down here."
The two of them trudged slowly down the lane, Martha slightly ahead of her mother. They walked for about ten minutes when the young girl cried out.
“Here they are Mommy, I found them.”
Mary, winded from her load, her arms aching, struggled to reach the spot without dropping everything. She plopped down next to her daughter, placing the items awkwardly on the ground.
“Hi guys”, she gasped, as she let her weight fall on her arms and knees.
The white head stone read, ‘In loving memory, Lazarus Micah O’Shea, Father and Jesse Aaron O’Shea, Beloved Son. The dates of birth were thirty five years apart; the date of death was the same. Mary put her hand on the stone. The cold marble burned her touch. The two of them sat there for a minute.
“Help me lay out the blanket” Mary finally said.
Martha picked up the blanket and laid it out next to the grave.
“Why are we here?”
She quietly asked her mother. Mary had to think a minute for the proper answer.
“To visit. It’s Dia de los Muertos."
“Dia de los Muertos. The Day of the Dead. It’s a day when people can remember the people who they loved who have died."
“Why did we bring all this stuff?"
“The bucket and water are to clean the head stone, and the food is for us to have a picnic. The flowers are to make everything look pretty."
“How can we have a picnic in a graveyard? Won’t people get mad?"
“No, people used to do it all the time in the old days. Down in Mexico whole families visit the cemeteries and spend time with their dead relatives, eating, telling stories, singing songs."
Mary began to pour some of the water into the bucket as Martha looked at her.
"That’s in Mexico, this is New Jersey. We’re not even Mexican. Maybe we aren’t allowed to do this."
“Why wouldn’t we be allowed? Everyone is allowed to remember the people they love."
“I don’t know," Martha said.
She sat down on the blanket and pulled the basket of food towards her, rummaging inside for something to eat.
Mary swished the brush inside the bucket to mix the soap. She gently placed her hand on the top of the grave stone and began to rhythmically move the brush across it. She looked at the dates on the face; had it really only been four months since that horrible day? She had gone to work early and Larry had walked Martha to school, Jesse strapped to his chest in one of those infant slings. On the way home from dropping his daughter off father and son had waited for the light to change before crossing the street; they never saw the car fail to stop, jump the curb and pin the two of them against the building behind them. The force of the impact was so violent that Jesse’s body had been pushed into his father’s abdominal cavity, searching to return to a womb that had never existed. Mary was just about to go into a meeting when the phone call announced the destruction of her world. She had wanted to crawl into the grave with her husband and son; only the fact that she still had to mother her daughter had kept her from giving up completely. This was the first time she had visited the grave. A foreign holiday had given her the courage to visit. She had wanted to believe in the old tales from school, All Soul’s Day, I am the Resurrection and the Life, he that believes in me will have everlasting life. What kind of God kills a three month old child, she had wondered? The type of God who lets his own son be crucified.
Mary rinsed the soap away from the rock and began to dry it with a towel. Martha was still digging in the basket, pulling out food and drink when a small box caught her eye. She opened it and gasped at its’ contents.
“What are these?"
Two white sugar skulls lay inside, each decorated with brightly colored cake frosting. One had the name ‘Lazarus’ written across the forehead, the other ‘Jesse’.
“They’re candy skulls. You leave them as a gift for the dead."
Martha stared intently at her mother.
“Mommy”, she said slowly and solemnly, “Daddy and Jesse are dead. You don’t leave presents to dead people. They can’t do anything with them. They’re dead."
Martha wanted to reach out and slap her daughter, wanted to scream “I know they’re dead, I haven’t been able to forget that”, but she couldn’t, she couldn’t refute her daughter’s logic. She had hoped that coming here today would give her some sense of closure, that she’d have some sort of epiphany, had hoped that following the rituals of another culture would make some sense to a totally senseless act. This was El Dia De los Muertos, the one day during the year when the souls of the departed are able to communicate with the living. Where were her loved ones? Why didn’t they try to contact her? Why didn’t they offer comfort? Her six year old daughter knew why; because they were dead. The dead have no need for presents, or food or the living. They’re dead.
Martha emptied the bucket of water onto the ground, repacked the food inside the basket and folded the blanket. The wind began to blow stronger as she arranged the marigolds in front of the head stone. The two candy skulls were left on top, the way stones are left on the top of a Jewish grave. She and her daughter walked back to the car, dumped their belongings in the trunk, entered the vehicle and drove away as the rain began. The two skulls began to melt in the pouring rain, the icing leaving colored streaks down the front of the gravestone.