Night of the Dead

Th older I get the more seasonal my life becomes.

The perfect Florida orange in January, the first frosty morning requiring wool socks — it’s these transitions and moments that measure out my years.

Witnessing the changing patterns of the planet and the movement of the light mark time in ways more profound than clocks and calendars.

It also means I can  feel justified in my excitement over the arrival of sandal weather or the first batch of pumpkin risotto. These little things make holidays of nothing, and I am always up for a celebration.

Which brings us to today, or rather last night.

It was El Dia de los Muertos, All Saints Day, All Hallows, Day of the Innocents, Samhain … whatever you want to call it. (I’ve mentioned it before.) It’s a day that millions of people celebrate across our planet, sharing in the confusing, profound space between life and death, the complicated joys and sorrows of our transient existence, and the loss of people, great and good, in our lives.

Total aside: while we did not have these marvellous El Dia de los Muertos cookies, designed by Emma Jane, they would have added much to the festivities. Aren’t they amazing? Sort of Burton-esque in their cheerful macabre way. I love them.

Ahem, sorry. Biscuit tangent. Hazardous but oh so wonderful. Anyway, now I’ve got that obsession out of the way, back to last night…

Where was I?

Day of the Dead.  Life. Loss. Loved ones.

Serious? Yes.

Last night Bean and I lit a bonfire.

The moon was impossibly bright. It made the tall grasses glow silver and reminded me of old movies where they film through a blue gel to make it look like night, but instead everything looks comically light (and blue).  It was utterly surreal.

We climbed our favourite hill to look out over the glittering city and the misty sea, and we lit a bonfire of remembrance.

Well, we lit a bonfire sort of.

Are there minimum height restrictions when using the word bonfire? Because ours was a really tiny one. It would be barred from any bonfire roller coasters, with their mocking yardstick entry points, for sure.

I used an old 5 gallon spaghetti pot as my go-to portable bonfire-maker. It’s very handy as it keeps flames and ash contained, and the sides help shield your starters beautifully.

Plus I find it useful, especially when you’re in a public park after hours, to avoid leaving scorches and residue, no matter how noble your cathartic flame ritual intentions.

I find dancing fire soothing regardless of  its tinder. There is something wholesome and healing about the warm licks of light against the darkness, but this one was purposeful.

When my Bonmama became ill in the summer, she and my mom FaceTime’d me from the hospital.

My grandmother, however, had never seen hand-held video conferencing. For her it really was like living in the future, confusing and magical.  And in her loopy, sleep deprived hospital state, she mostly just pet the screen and talked about me to my mom.

I’m not sure she even knew I could hear and see her the same way she could hear and see me– which might be for the best, actually, as it meant she wasn’t worried about her lack of magenta lipstick or if she sat primly with her hands folded, just so; she was just her, and the tender simplicity of that moment does my heart good to this day.

At that point, they suspected malnutrition or dehydration, that a few days rest and some medication would set her to rights. At that point, they hadn’t yet discovered her abdomen lined with bb gun pellets of cancer.

That’s how my dad described it: bb gun pellets. It is appropriately violent I find. In my frantic woe it was like she was shot up by a Tommy-gun wielding mobster. Suddenly riddled, smattered by Cancer.

But that afternoon when we saw each other from afar, for the first and last time, and she was pleasantly and unknowingly succumbing to tests, I set about concocting a care package.

They thought she’d be in hospital for a couple of days or even weeks. That she needed cheering up and encouragement.

So I wrote her a series of postcards and letters.

I’d planned to send one every couple of days, and charge Bean with sending the rest when I set off for Kyrgyzstan, trickling them out over her recovery.

Some were stories about me, some were questions about her, one was filled with gentle, healthy biscuits and crackers I had made (I’d amused myself thinking I could guilt her into eating her herself to wellness, even if the doctors couldn’t. What huberis.).

Before I’d sent the first one, word came. And my heart was riddled with bb pellets.

It seemed fruitless and cruel to send biscuits to a woman on an IV drip. Biscuits which might not even arrive in time. Biscuits my dad would have to throw away with the flowers and now meaningless Get Well Soon! cards.

At first they sat on my dining room table, but eventually it just hurt too much to see the little pile of one way correspondence.

After she died, I packed them neatly away.

And last night it was time to let them go.

This long night, this holiday of saints and saviours, was meant for saying goodbye.

In old folklores, it is when the space between worlds is the thinnest, and you can commune with your family and friends on the other side.

I may not be so wholly pagan as to believe I could hold a séance, nor do I think I would like to, even if I was a believer, but I figured if any semblance of the spirit of my Bonmama still exists in this universe, and if she was ever going to receive the love I poured onto those sheets of paper, now was my best shot.

So in my 5 gallon spaghetti bucket, on top of a heath covered hill, I sent letter after letter into the flaming darkness.

I stood there for a long time, watching every last ember die out. My fingers were numb. My cheeks were wet.

I stood under the impossibly bright moon, and my heart defied every law of physics and burst forth both full and empty on the world.

I saved only one note from the stack, reserving it for a different fate.

It sits on our mantle, a vintage postcard of Queen Elizabeth II in her youth.

They were about the same age, the Queen and my die-hard royalist Bonmama. They have (had…) a similar edge sometimes too.

In the photo, the Queen is radiant in a glamorous fifties ball gown and tiara. On the back it says only this:


Here is one lady who reminds me of you.

Full of vim and vigor, and always impeccably dressed.

I love you tons!

Like everything, in hindsight it says not enough. It is too short. Too flippant.

And yet, what more is there?

When the flames die down and the spaghetti pot goes back in the cupboard, what is there but a memory, some joy, and love. Always love.

6 Responses to “Night of the Dead”
  1. Kylie says:

    Laughter and tears… a good post!!
    Love the phrase about the bonfire roller coaster.

    Rituals do help us process time, change, our lives… thank you for sharing this one. So much better than trick or treating!


  2. Dappled says:

    Really powerfu. There has been some communing this side of the country too, and some moments where the curtain between worlds has been very thin.x


  3. greg g says:

    Tears and love from this side of the pond…

    as chance would have it .our Halloween was cold and blustery and at the last minute before tricks and treats i pulled out our old rusty metal fire pit tin placed it at the end ot the driveway, piled with scraps of wood and lit it up. Moms and Dads and a few granndmas, that reminded me of my Mom, would stand by it and warm themselves as their little ones toddled self styled as spidermans and goblin princesses up the longish walk to my door to plead for candy and treats…They, at the curbside, would yell up thanks for the fire and give me a mitten covered thumbs their young costumed charges made way back to them passing the line of glowing pumpkins on the way.

    One older woman sent her kids,..I assume her grandchildren around the cul de sac as she stayed by the fire . She slowly rotated in the warmth while keeping a vigilant eye on her brood as they made there way door to door.Something about the way she patted her gloved hands together and held them palms out to the fire…reminded me of my Mom. It made me happy.

    She exuberantly waved to me as she left the fire light.

    How I wish she would have stayed a bit longer..


  4. Rupert Neil Bumfrey (@rupertbu) says:

    What a delight Sara, tinged throughout with sorrow.


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