|The Santa Maria Cemetery in Atzompa, Oaxaca|
I imagined what it would be like. I didn't come close.
The festive atmosphere began as we walked through the streets at 1:30 in the morning. Food vendors cooking up hot meals. Men with boxes of candy and chewing gum working the crowd. We could hear the music blasting happy tunes. Not ranchero, not banda, but something polka-like. The band was from the neighboring state of Chiapas, I was told. An accordion, a couple of electric guitars, drums, singing. As we passed through the gates of the cemetery, a couple was dancing arm in arm.
Townspeople poured through the entrance, arms full of marigolds, cockscomb, gladiolas, blankets, babies, pots of tamales, tall candles. The graves had been cleaned and readied; some were already completely decked out with flowers in vases or simply mounded over the graves. Candles were everywhere. Fruits and vegetables were laid out for the returning spirits. Drinks were poured for them. Some people were wound into blankets sleeping next to, on even atop the mounds of earth, under which lay their loved ones. Families brought chairs and settled in. Food was passed around. There were smiles and laughter and conversation while the band played on.
It was comfortable enough to be a norte americana there to observe rather than participate. Stepping along the winding narrow paths on uneven terrain between the graves amidst tall lighted candles and the crowds was challenging. Señora, a woman called, standing up from her little wooden chair to point my way. The people seemed accustomed to visitors, maybe even proud of the beauty and willing to share it.
I've never felt comfortable visiting my father or anyone else in a cemetery. It feels sad. It feels deserted. Pouring out a beer or a shot of scotch and laying out a pack of Chesterfields, I'm sure would be frowned upon. Lighted candles would probably require a permit from the fire marshall, and amplified music would, no doubt, cause nothing short of scandal. But I think that if I lived in my hometown after seeing what I saw last night, it's quite likely that I'd be having martinis in the cemetery after my mother's ashes are returned from the University of Iowa Medical School. There'd be hummingbird feeders, candies, cookies, cake, and orchids.