Denise and I were supposed to get together for lunch this past Thursday, tentatively planning to meet, brown bags in hand, at the park benches on North Wahl overlooking Lake Michigan.

That same day I posted on Facebook that one of the things I love about Halloween is the fact that All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, along with Día de los Muertos, immediately follow it, on November 1 and 2.

I first became aware of this two years ago when Greg died. At the same time, I learned about the ofrenda, an altar built to honor loved ones who have died. That year, I built my first ofrenda, on our dining room table. I didn’t actually break out the hammer and nails to do this; rather, I collected photographs and things that reminded me of the people I love who’ve died, and laid them out on one end of the table. I invited John to do the same thing.

Putting it together was a very moving experience. By the end of it, standing there looking at it, I was crying. Every time I passed it, it felt like something holy was going on there.

In 2010, our ofrenda consisted of photos of Greg; John’s parents; my grandparents; an uncle; a beloved pet. Objects included a small mother-of-pearl box Jan and Greg had given me; my grandmother’s teacup; John’s father’s money clip; and two candles we kept lit.

Last year, I did not get around to building an ofrenda. It did not even occur to me. Because my mother was dying of cancer. And we did not get along. With the extra added bonus that the last time I saw her alive, I was walking out the door after yet another time things were said that shouldn’t have been said. Last year, the closest I got to an ofrenda was lighting a candle immediately after my brother called to say she had died.

That was one year ago, on all Souls’ Day.

I didn’t get around to carving our pumpkin until Thanksgiving. By then, it made no sense to make a jack-o-lantern. I carved a Christmas tree instead.

This year, our ofrenda was very top of mind. Photographs of three new people were added: my mother, John’s Uncle Jerry; John’s ex-brother-in-law Bill. We added Greg’s “Bargrooves” CDs; a T-shirt he, The King of Subversive T-shirts, used to wear; my mom’s 1939 edition of Nancy Drew: The Clue of the Tapping Heels; and some vintage jewelry she gave me when she was a small-antiques dealer. During one of the times we were actually getting along.

One of the privileges of human life is being allowed to live long. The dark side of this is that 1) your own years become increasingly numbered, even in a best-case scenario; and 2) as those years pass, you will watch your ofrenda get larger and larger.

Something occurred to me this past week, very consciously, for the first time: these loved ones of ours who die, although we miss the hell out of them, are so much a part of us that never really develops until we lose them. Just as surely as these people we love will die, just as surely as our hearts will break every day for the loss, if we’re lucky we will also become more grateful, present, and eternally embraced by their spirits. They shape us as much as our own souls and other living people do. A remarkable new dimension that, if we’re lucky, and open to it, can touch us quite deeply and profoundly and permanently.

It is also a conundrum. We can’t really get to this bittersweet spot until we suffer profound loss.

During times we don’t see each other socially, Denise and I stay in touch via email. Some days we have the most robust discussions. Minutes after I posted a picture of our ofrenda on Thursday, another robust discussion ensued, during which we wrote about loved ones who’ve crossed over. It got emotional.

Somewhere in the middle of things, I wrote:

Still wanna get together for lunch at the lake?

I didn’t hear anything for a short while. Then this:

I’m not sure. I’m feeling quite…thoughtful today. It might be the best thing in the world for me to sit with a friend and talk and share and look at the restorative water. Or I may stare silently for a time and then burst into tears. Tough call!

In the end we decided that it was too cold to sit on a park bench and eat peanut butter sandwiches. That maybe it was best to give in to all that introspection, however sad and mixed up and raw it makes us feel. We’ll get together another time, soon.

It’s been a strange and beautiful week. There was Halloween. Our ofrenda. Hurricane Sandy. Here in Milwaukee hundreds of people flocked to Lake Michigan in hopes of seeing the eighteen-foot waves authorities were predicting from Sandy’s aftermath. I posted a “Wave Report” on Facebook, monitoring the shore from our dining room window and posting photos. The waves were bigger and more vehement than usual. But the eighteen-footers never materialized.

In the meantime, people died. Some violently; others in their homes; in hospital beds; in their sleep; with their children holding them as they take their last breaths. Souls fled. After Lake Michigan settled down, the sun began to slip down, blanketing the Eastern sky in orange and fuchsia, casting a faint shadow of itself on the horizon. The churned-up lake water, the color of a caramel macchiato, continued to splash over the break wall, but less frequently. I’ve taken hundreds of pictures of Lake Michigan. But in the 8.5 years I’ve been doing it, I’ve never seen anything as oddly beautiful as this.

Molly Snyder writes about the ofrenda she built for the Día de los Muertos show at the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts on OnMilwaukee.com. The show runs through Nov. 17.

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11 Comments

  1. Very nice reflective fall posting. As the foliage around us goes to sleep for the winter, it’s good to think about those who have gone to sleep forever, at least in as much as they have left us and this mixed up world.

  2. The more I reflect on life, both in the present and looking back, the more I have come to believe that all of it–the joy and the tears, the having and the loss, the laughter and the silence–is the same living, evolving, thing. As my virtual ofrenda becomes larger I find myself ever more aware of the great gift I have been given…the ability to go forward with love and gratitude for the sharing. And with many thanks to living, who make it all worthwhile!

    • As I put our ofrenda together this year, I realized that I had no photos of my fraternal grandparents handy to include. I’ll have to go through my box again, because I know I have a few. So I added a small pamphlet titled “Frank’s 50 Good ‘n Zesty Recipes,” c. 1960s, which my dad’s mother gave to me and my ex-husband as part of our wedding gift. You’ll love this, Denise: the gift was comprised of about two dozen cookbooks, pamphlets, and booklets she’d either found on sale or sent away for. The centerpiece was the Jimmy Dean’s Sausage Cookbook I’d told you about. Others included: Hershey’s Cocoa Cookbook (1979); “A Diet for Today” from the Beaver County, PA, Heart Association (1974); and “Home Freezing of Fruits and Vegetables” from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (1976). In each she handwrote: “To Cindy & Pat, From Granny Mihaloew, Nov 14, 1981.

      • I would really enjoy this collection! Priceless…in many ways. Still looking for sausage fudge.

        • I will share all of it with you, for sure. (Along with the ‘Webster’s Pictorial’ and ‘Illustrated Strunk & White.’ Haven’t forgotten.) You will love the pamphlets; I was looking at them all yesterday and they crack me up. God love my grandma.

  3. Georgette Bremer

    Thank you Robin for sharing via your beautiful posting. With age comes wisdom through unexpected traumas and losses. The connections we had with those who have passed over stay in our memories. I can recall clearly the voices of my husband, my Mom and Dad, dear friends. I believe I’ll connect with them again in God’s time.

  4. Beautiful writing and beautiful photos… THANK YOU Robin, for touching my heart. You reminded me that all the relatives and friends who have ‘crossed over’ …whom I have loved so dearly and miss so badly… may not be here physically in this realm, but are here in my heart and a part of who I am. And realizing that, more than I ever have before, I am grateful and I am comforted.

    • I really appreciate your comment, Helen. I wish I could have known your mom and dad; I have heard a lot about them. Depending on the day, I am grateful/comforted or sad and asking why? why? why? I guess that’s the way it goes, another part of the experience.

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