Good morning, Gentle Readers, as Isaac Asimov would say. Today’s entry is very personal, and I have struggled over whether or not to even tell it publicly. However, I have decided to share it now to show the love and compassion of the people among whom I am living.
I have recently experienced a loss, as some of you may have guessed from a previous post. My mother suffered a massive stroke the day after her 97th birthday and has passed away. It is a difficult enough thing when you are present and it is doubly difficult when you are not only far away, but in a different country as well. However, with the technology of telephones, email and Skype, I was able to have conversations with my family members.
When the people here, Americans, Canadians and Mexicans, heard about my Mom, they were very caring, talking with me, and my being able to recall some humorous events from my life at home helped a lot.
One of the directors, Anilu, told me that our students in the homework club would like to build an altar to my Mom, and requested her name, some pictures and other information about her. She also said that I would need to prepare her favorite food. So, I gratefully accepted the offer.
My mother was 100% Ukrainian, the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants who didn’t speak English until she started school. So I included a picture of the Ukrainian flag and a picture of the Trident – symbol of Ukraine. I also sent to photographs, one taken in 1948 (the year she was married) and one from last year with one of her great-grandchildren.
In her final years, she always wanted baked chicken and mashed potatoes, and she occasionally liked a glass of beer so I knew that was what I should prepare. The chicken was no problem at all in this village and neither was obtaining beer, but the white potatoes were a problem. So, a few days ago I took the hour-long bus ride to Soriana in the village of Villa de Alvarez, where I knew I could buy them since they stock many foods that are not traditionally Mexican. And so yesterday, I cooked the meal.
At 3pm, more than 20 students arrived, with Jessi here to direct the action. They moved tables and couches upstairs to clear an adequate space. They had rolls of tissue paper, which they cut by hand into delicate, lace-like flags. String was found, and two lines of blue and yellow flags (the colors of Ukraine) were strung on either side of the altar, which was constructed by stacking tables and covering containers.
Beautiful flowers were made from the yellow tissue paper. Blue and yellow streamers were attached from the banister upstairs winding down to the fountain. Candles and bowls of fruit appeared and were placed on the altar. While coming back from the kitchen in the Suegras residence, I ran into Doña Meche and told her about my Mom. She gave me a hug, offered condolences and prayers, and said she would be there with white flowers; she arrived after the students with a big bucket of lilies and roses.
The students had also made frames for my mother’s two pictures and a frame around the flag and trident. The final act of the students was to make a cross out of salt at the foot of the altar – which is believed to cleanse the soul of the departed. The flowers were placed in pitchers on either side.
When it was done, a glass of water was placed on the altar, followed by the chicken and potatoes and a glass of beer. It was too dangerous to light the candles and leave them there (meant to guide the spirit, I think), so I lit one and after a few minutes blew it out.
I had no experience with this tradition before, so I was expecting something much smaller that might possible fit on top of a dresser. I had no idea how big it would be, and the students, all of them working on their part, took over two hours to complete it.
I was overwhelmed and unable to speak more than words of gratitude – saying over and over “Muchas gracias” and then get a picture of the altar, Jessi and all the students. And in case you are wondering about the sign above the altar – my mother was born in 1919. I had not mentioned that to Anilu when she asked for information about my Mom. The only dates in evidence were that the one picture was taken in 1948 and the other was recent, so that is why it says “Rose Ryan, 1948-2016” – but that makes this experience even more unique.
So I will end now with the thought that I am so lucky to be here with such caring people who would share their traditions with me to honor my mother.