Flowers, candles, cards and chestnuts. Celebrating death and celebrating Life.

It is the Day of the Dead, and it is pouring with rain.  My phone beeps with a message from our AuPair, who was leading us in this Peruvian celebration.  She is not coming.  I contemplate cancelling.  Maybe it is a ridiculously morbid idea to drag two young children to a cemetery for a picnic.   When I’d told my husband about it, he did the weird flappy thing about his ears that he does when he doesn’t want to hear what I’m saying.  He is terrified of death, and absolutely avoids any talk about it.  I have been trying to have the conversation about who would take care of our girls should something happen to us both.  I’ve been trying to have it since our eldest was a few months old.  She turned five this year.  He still cannot have it.  

When I’d told my husband about it, he did the weird flappy thing about his ears that he does when he doesn’t want to hear what I’m saying.  He is terrified of death, and absolutely avoids any talk about it.  I have been trying to have the conversation about who would take care of our girls should something happen to us both.  I’ve been trying to have it since our eldest was a few months old.  She turned five this year.  He still cannot have it.  

‘But we all die,’ I say, trying to understand him.

‘I’m not going to,’ 

I raise my eyes sceptically.

‘I’m going to be frozen, then when technology has advanced they can bring me back.’ 

His answer is so much worse than I thought it was going to be.  ‘Like Disney?’ I ask.

‘Exactly.’

‘But we’ll all be dead.’

‘That’s okay, I’ll just start again.’

‘Glad we can be so easily replaced,’ I laugh.

My tin man shrugs.  

‘Don’t you need to be frozen alive though?’

‘No, they’ll have figured that all out by then.’

‘Will they?’ I ask, curious about this new future world he thinks will be waiting for him.  

‘Yes, I’m going to come back when it’s like Star Trek, and I can travel the universe visiting other planets and galaxies.’

I’ve heard this speech more than once now, and I still do not know what to do with it.

As rain fills the streets, I ask our nanny ‘Should we still go to the cemetery?’ 

She looks up Buienradar, the weather app that governs our lives, she shrugs, ‘it’s going to rain on and off, but if we rug up and take our umbrellas…’

‘How bad can it be…?’ I finish for her.

So we go.  The girls climb into the bike, I secure the cover and our nanny and I follow google maps through parts of Amsterdam I’ve never seen.  We pass a skatepark and I drop a star, we’ve been looking for one ever since the girls got their scooters.  We ride through a really picturesque neighbourhood, and I drop another star.  Just in case my husband and I decide to live out our current fantasy about staying in Amsterdam inevitably.  

At the cemetery, my phone switches itself off.  It still has 23% battery and I’m determined not to make anything of it.   How bad can it be…?

We collect our picnic, paper, pencils, flowers and candles and walk into the cemetery.  The rain has stopped and there is nothing but blue skies and sunshine.  The russet oak leaves glow in the sunlight, and we make our picnic under a tree with leaves that look like fingers.  

‘It’s a, a, …castagne tree, oh I can’t think of the name in English,’  she says, bringing her hand to her face.
‘A chestnut tree?’ 

‘Yes,’ she says, ‘is it the same in English?’

‘No, but it’s the same in Italian.’  

There’s something really lovely about trying to communicate in different languages.  It’s like playing a game of charades, only I really can’t draw.  

The girls eat their snacks, draw their pictures for Gigi and then pick a tree to bury our letters under.   

A leaf mulching tractor screams its way down the path, and my eldest jumps up onto the park bench and refuses to get down.  I love that being in a cemetery doesn’t phase her, but the leaf mulcher does.  It takes me five minutes to convince her the tractor is not coming back before she finally climbs down from the chair. 

The girls race around delivering flowers to the different graves around us.  They pick up the plastic vases that are on offer and proudly fill them up at the tap on their own.  It’s possible they are having more fun filling the vases than decorating the graves.  My youngest pushes her vases in next to her

My youngest pushes her vases in next to her sisters so that we have about three graves that are very well decorated.  I stifle the urge to move the vases.

My eldest discovers the fallen chestnuts and dumps the rest of the flowers unceremoniously into the vase before racing to fill every container and bag we have with chestnuts to roast on the fire later.

There is something lovely about collecting the fallen treats, a symbolic representation of life’s cycle perhaps, and a reminder of the indefatigability of life.   It was the same feeling I’d had when the girls and I visited the monument to the 6000 murdered Jews in Berlin last year.  A place that you would expect to be incredibly somber, and yet, the site remains my children’s favorite ‘playground’ in Berlin.  Flashes of pink appearing between the grey pillars that from the outside all appear the same height, but from the inside tower at differing heights as the uneven ground rises and falls in undulating waves.  Parents chased giggles as kids disappeared, then reappeared and then disappeared again. 

Having celebrated both life and death, we piled ourselves, and our basket now overflowing with chestnuts, back into the bike and attempted to find our way home.  Inexplicably, my phone turned itself back on.  As the rain poured down on top of us, we peddalled as fast as we could, our hats jammed down over our heads, feeling a little more alive, than we had that morning.

How do you celebrate the Day of the Dead?

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As the veil between this world and the next closes, who are you thinking of?

For the last few months, my eldest has been interested in death.  Every time she opens up the photo book my Mum made her for her first birthday to the page with my Grandmother, she asks the same question.

‘That’s Gigi isn’t it.’

‘Yes,’ I say.

‘Gigi isn’t alive anymore is she?’

‘No,’ I say, smiling at the last photograph I have of my grandmother.  It was taken at my brother’s 30th birthday party, just six weeks before my grandmother died.  She was holding my daughter, she looked awkward and sad as if she knew what was coming even if we didn’t.  But she was smiling too, a brave smile. ‘She died when you were only four months old.’

‘Can we do something for her?’ she asks. I can see her mind trying to grapple with the ineffableness of death.  What is it?  What does it mean?  Where do people go?  She’s not asking these questions yet, but I know they are coming.  I recognise the anxiety she has.  It flares up at night when the world is quiet and the shadows come out to play.  That’s when mine flares up too.  I’ve always been terrified of death, for as far back as I can remember.  When I was 5 or 6 years old, I remember waking up inconsolable from a dream.  In it, I’d watched my entire life, myself as a child, as a teenager, as an adult, getting married, having children, having grandchildren, a long and glorious life, over in a flash.  ‘It’s so quick,’ I remember saying over and over to my Mum.  ‘Then it’s all over.’

‘Of course, we can do something for her,’ I say, hugging her tight.  ‘I think that’s an excellent idea.’  I often think about my Grandmother.  I think about the terrible sadness that shadowed so much of her life, and the soul-destroying anxiety that plagued her, till her last day. My grandmother was cremated, and I have some of her ashes in a small urn.  They used to sit in my kitchen in Melbourne, we’d bring her out at family dinners so she could be part of the fun.  Morbid, but it would have made her laugh.  Her urn is in storage now.  If I’d known we wouldn’t be back to Melbourne for this long, I would have brought her with me.  She loved to travel, she loved adventure and I know she would have loved the house we are living in at the moment.  I would have liked to spread her ashes in all the different places we visited.

My grandmother was cremated, and I have some of her ashes in a small urn.  They used to sit in my kitchen in Melbourne, we’d bring her out at family dinners so she could be part of the fun.  Morbid, but it would have made her laugh.  Her urn is holidaying at my Mum’s.  If I’d known we wouldn’t be back to Melbourne for this long, I would have brought her with me.  She loved to travel, she loved adventure and I know she would have loved the house we are living in at the moment.  I would have liked to spread her ashes in all the different places we visited.

Our AuPair is from Peru.  ‘November 2nd is the day of the dead,’  I tell her.  ‘But I don’t know anything about it.’

‘It’s a big celebration in Peru,’ she says, pushing her wild, dark curls back from her face.  Her dark brown eyes light up, as she talks about how her family would get together in the morning to prepare for the day.  Together they would bake bread, with fruit inside for luck, they would make candles, and tie dozens of posies, and then they would all sit quietly writing their letters to their dead.  ‘Then we take a picnic and wine, lots of wine, the wine is very important, and we all go down to the cemetery and have a party.’

‘And you decorate the graves with the flowers and the candles?’

‘Yes,’ she laughs, ‘we leave flowers on the graves of people who don’t have anyone to celebrate them, and we light candles, and we drink.’

‘We could do that, maybe without the alcohol, we could have kombucha and mineral water instead!  But we could definitely make candles, and posies and have a picnic at the cemetery.’  I google the nearest cemetery and find that it is only a 20-minute bike ride away.  I really like cemeteries, I’ve always had a weird fascination for them.  For the stories they tell. The lives that have been lived that I know nothing about.  I used to spend hours walking around Melbourne cemetery when I lived in Carlton North.

‘What if we draw a picture for Gigi?’ I say to my eldest, who is busy playing shops with her sister, ‘and then we make a picnic to take to the cemetery and we bury it there, as a way to let her know we are thinking about her.’

My daughter’s smile grows wide, ‘Yes, let’s do that,’ she says so enthusiastically her sister begins to cheer also, despite not really knowing what we are talking about.

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