The only day of the year I light every candle on my altar is November 2nd, aka The Day of The Dead. I often worry this space in my home gives people the impression that I’m very religious. I’m not, but I am intrigued by faith. Regardless of how you choose to affiliate, even atheists know what its like to believe in something you can’t see or prove. You can be godless and a believer in the unknown. I have faith in people and art and the good of the world, even when I can’t see it, even when there is evidence to the contrary. Faith is faith and it all comes from the same place inside us. Both my grandmothers had altars of some kind, so did my parents. An altar isn’t about just about religion. It’s a place to light a candle and visit the dead and find faith.
Each cross is from a different country I’ve visited. I’ve got smudge sticks and voodoo candles from New Orleans and rosaries from the Vatican and prayer beads from Africa and Buddhist statues and Hindi paintings and protection masks from Indonesia and a page of the koran painted onto a wooden board by a young Moroccan boy. I’m probably using half of them wrong. People sometimes send me things when they go to a spiritual site, all sorts of faiths are represented here. I love to sit here and think about that, all those different people believing different beautiful things. It’s filled with the photos of people I have loved that have died. A few of their things, too. My grandmothers thimble. The lucky coin my grandfather carried in his wallet. My mother’s madonna statue. I don’t want to tuck these trinkets and all these people away in drawers. I want to see their faces and incorporate them into my life. All those mass cards from funerals come to live here, too. Sometimes I bring things to them. A flower on my mothers birthday. I took a rock from the driveway of Graceland to put next to my fathers picture, did it again when I went to Abbey Road. A small dragonfly pin for my friend Tim. Every night when I blow out the candles I sit there for a minute and just think of them. It’s nice to have a place that isn’t a morbid grave. Because I see them so often, in some ways, it’s like they’re still here.
I grew up thinking that we shouldn’t talk about the dead, it was too upsetting and made us contend with our own mortality. I get it- grief hurts. But we often turn so far away from the pain of death that we end up forgetting our dead to protect ourselves. In the end, I believe that this hurts worse. That is how people really die. Not when they leave the earth, but when we stop talking about them. I don’t want to do that. There is a way to remember and celebrate and love our dead without pain. I know because I have seen it and I am a living example of it every day. My father’s mother took me to my first Dia di los Muertos. It rocked my world. By then I had stopped telling people that I missed my mother or asking questions about her because it made them cry. I loved that there was a day where we didn’t turn away from mortality, a day where we ignored our grief to celebrate the people we missed, where we openly didn’t pretend we were okay and talked about them. It freed me to do the same. I went home and lit my first candle for my mother that night.
My friend’s mother died before his kids were born. Every year on her birthday he cooks his mothers favorite meal and sets her photo a place at the table and tells his kids a story about the grandmother they’ll never know. I love that. You don’t have to have a massive shrine in your house, I’m a bit of an extreme person. But I hope that you all have a quiet space, whether that be an altar or a dinner table or a place in your mind, to visit with those that you love and miss.
cross wall in the day
the wall opposite the cross wall is blank right now save for this shadow box I built to house my grandfathers war memorabilia. I’ve got plans to finish this wall with a genealogy project.
My favorite photo of Ryan. There is an adult one of him on here too, but I’ve always loved this image of him at 5, covered in puppies.
my Memere, the woman who brought me to my first day of the dead. Her photo is in a picture frame that she made and this DotD sugar skull lady reminded me of her, she was always smoking. Her favorite bird was a cardinal & she always wanted to go to Africa, so when I was there and saw this carved wooden cardinal I brought it back for her.
My grandfather took this photo in 1942 during World War II. The dead man laying in the field towards the left of the frame was his bunkmate. He only showed me the photos he took during his years overseas once and I never saw them again until I inherited them when he died. I woke up today feeling compelled to dig them out and share them.
This weekend I was overcome with a strange thankfulness that my grandfather is no longer here. How could I possibly explain to him- a man who lied about his age to go fight nazis at 16, and who spent the rest of his life ravaged by the effects of war and a bullet he took in the leg- that nazis were marching on american soil in 2017? How could I tell him that a woman and two state troopers died during a protest against their resurgence? I mean that literally, how would I actually sit down and tell him that white supremacists are energetic and demonstrative again? My grandfather rarely talked about the war and he hated anything that glorified it; he was disgusted every time a new hollywood blockbuster came out, hated the idea of movie executives making millions off the stories of veterans. ‘Give the veterans the damn money and I’ll start seeing them’, he’d say. The war changed him in vast, unknowable ways.
my grandfather getting his hair cut by his brothers the day 3 of them enlisted
I grew up with war in my house. When I was a kid, my grandfather and I shared a bedroom wall and sometimes I would wake to him screaming through a nightmare. I would rush in and shake him and he would always awaken with the same terror in his eyes. My grandfather was the toughest man I’d ever known, it always shook me to see him like that. It gave me a great understanding that war isn’t some abstract concept or thing written about in books. It’s not prevented from hilarious tweets and memes. It is awful and real and entirely possible when a group of people become complacent. It kills people and the ones that live through it are still ruined in some way.
My grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s later in his life. But even when he forgot everything, me included, he always knew his army number. It was the one thing his disease could not take from him, it was permanently etched inside him. He could be totally out of it and you’d ask for it and he’d proudly shout out ‘E47114’. I tattooed that number on me years ago, not because I thought of him as a soldier, but because it was the most indelible part of him and the part of himself that he clung to the most.
We can’t for one fucking second think that it’s a coincidence that all this is happening just as World War II is rapidly fading from living memory. I still remember learning about war for the first time, and wondering how people could have possibly let it happen. But wasn’t it amazing to know that our country was on the right side of history? Growing up with a grandfather like mine gave me a deep appreciation for history and sacrifice and virtue. It still blows my mind sometimes to think of all those people who volunteered, who stood up for what they believed in and were willing to even die for that, for others they didn’t even know.
I truly believe we are in the middle of a shameful chapter, that we will look back upon this time and wonder what we were thinking. Make no mistake, how we behave now is how we are going to have to explain ourselves to our children. Every person, especially white people, should be denouncing the disgusting public displays of racism in the world right now. Silence IS complicity. You are not how you feel or think. You are what you say and do. Whether that’s in real life or on social media or in calling out people for racist jokes, use your damn voice. Let it be known.
So one day when your grandkids learn about these years, they’ll know that you were on the right side of history.
forever proud to be this man’s granddaughter.
How many photos do you have of you and your partner? In today’s digital age, you probably have hundreds, if not thousands. I lived with Ryan McAlpine for almost 3 years. You know how many photos I have of us? Maybe 50. And that’s because of film.
Do you remember how special film was? When you only had 26 frames, you didn’t waste them. You didn’t click away mindlessly, you chose your moments. You waited for the right shot and then you waited again. You had to use up the whole roll and then bring them somewhere and wait some more! It was torturous, not knowing what turned out. I resisted the digital age for so long. I loved film. I loved the lesson in patience, I loved the way my hands smelled after hours in the darkroom, I loved the way the camera shutter clicked, that satisfying clunk. There’s a reason we love photos from that time so much, why their vintage quality almost makes them look more real. It’s because we take too damn many photos now. Today’s kids will never get to experience that feeling of walking into the photo shop to pick up a double set of your newly developed photos, all of which turned out. Of tearing open that package in the parking lot and passing them around in the car with your friends, laughing at the moments you’re all simultaneously reliving, together. It was euphoric. Film taught us to be hopeful, that things would turn out alright.
When Ryan died almost 12 years ago, I thought I might never be alright again. I don’t know if I’ve ever told anyone that before, but that’s the exact thought I had the night I went home from that emergency room without him. It was the only I could think actually. I stared at the ceiling, chain smoking and picturing his dead face in my mind, thinking over and over: I may never be alright again.
I recently dug out my old film camera, the one my grandfather placed in my hands when I was a teenager and said ‘a camera is a gift that teaches you to see the world without a camera.’ I put it together and ordered several obscure batteries and cleaned out my old camera bag and found 2 rolls of never developed film rolling around in the bottom of it. It took a few tries to find a place that developed true black and white film but a week later I was sitting in my car, ripping open packages with anticipation just like I used to. One roll was dead, a single hazy image came out. The other was the last roll I shot on the camera. There were some of a camping trip, a few of the house and then there he was. Three frames, never before seen. His eyes, eyes I haven’t looked into in over a decade, staring back up at me, cradling our old dog.
What a gift.
And a reminder that everything turns out alright.