Everyone knows Halloween. Not as many are familiar with the traditional roots that surround it -- that the spirited costumes are linked to world-wide belief that this is a time when the souls of the dead return to visit. Treats are offered to appease, lest there be tricks and consequences. It is also a time of seamless communication with the dead. Thus, Halloween is followed by November 1st and the Day of the Dead, when altars to the dead are constructed. Rituals include a place setting at the dinner table for the deceased. Favorite meals and libations are taken to the cemetery (camposanto) and placed on the dead's grave. Any departed one you miss will do, even a precious pet; or perhaps there's someone with whom you have unfinished business and you want to clear the air over a bottle of their favorite single malt scotch.
|Trumpeter Swans Return to the Skagit Valley|
So it was that on the Day of the Dead I was driving across the Skagit Valley and excitedly spied the first group of Trumpeter Swans, arrivals from their summer Siberian and Alaskan homes. So it was that I placed the past few weeks of my elbow break into a perspective to carry into the next season and fresh writing. So it was that the voice of Nora May, my great-grandmother, became louder in my ear from beyond the grave. For you see, until a few weeks ago I had never heard of Nora May. Then, these newspaper clippings surfaced from the early 1900's (the spellings are as they appeared in the original article) --
"Breaking into the basement of his own home last night, Albert Dunlap at 7 o'clock this morning brought a sordid drama of domestic unhappiness to a culumination in a flash of vivid tragedy when he murdered his wife, May Dunlap, who was sueing him for a divorce, and turned his revolver against himself, dying instantly."
"Only last Friday Dunlap was released from jail, where he has served a 30-day sentence of intoxication and assault and battery on his wife. While in jail he wrote a letter to his wife saying that he would kill her when he was released. As he had made similar threats before, no attention was paid to the contents of the letter." Nora May was dressing out two chickens for her four children and her mother-in-law. She descended the basement stairs to add coal to the furnace. It was Thanksgiving Day.
One newspaper account refers to Nora May only as "the wife." The other mentions her name once. Even in death she remained, "Mrs. Dunlap," the legal property of her murderer. This woman who garnered the courage in 1917 to have her abuser jailed, who worked to support her children in impoverished conditions, who played piano at church and dreamed of playing for silent movies, has no visible gravestone. There were no freshly-picked lilacs left for her on Decoration Day. No speaking of her name.
So it is on this Day of the Dead I build her an altar of words. I exhume her spirit, that this woman born on exuberant May Day, might live again through our stories. It is important to know that her genes flood my body. It helps me to understand who I am, as I remember Grandmother Velva and my mother. There is much to unearth, through myriad rich layers, right down to the newspaper prose and punctuation that told the tale.
Once re-membered, perhaps a daughter of the future will be named Nora May, and this daughter will understand the courage and creativity that instills her name.