Trip to a small town

Lobby of the cemetery.
Lobby of the cemetery.

OUR DUTIES for the Day of the Dead continued on Monday. The third of November is when we drive to a small town down the mountainside to tidy up my child bride’s parents’ graves.

The two of them are not side by side. Mama died at age 31 in childbirth, and Papa remarried. When he died decades later, leaving a second wife who still lives today, he was buried elsewhere in the same graveyard. I imagine the second wife intends to rest at his side one day.

The three of them were born in this little town, and my wife lived there until age 3. That was when Mama died. With five children to care for, Papa remarried quite hastily. Then the restocked family moved to another small town, although larger, in the same state where he continued working as a physician.

I enjoy this annual trip to the graveyard. Though it’s only about a 30-minute drive down an autopista, you move from our cool, mountain world to a tropical, mountain world. The difference is dramatic. Leaving the autopista, we wind down a narrow road through lush greenery full of avocados, bananas and flowers.

Passing a convoy of heavily armed soldiers parked on the roadside, I give them a thumbs-up, but they ignore me. This is what is called La Tierra Caliente. It is where troubles concentrate.

It’s warm, balmy and sultry, reminding me of Puerto Rico where I lived long ago.

While my wife tended to the two tombstones — cleaning, thinking, remembering — I sat a spell on a stone bench in a covered area just inside the cemetery’s entrance. That’s where I took the top photo.

Mama’s spot.

Mama’s grave, being decades older than Papa’s, is in need of basic upkeep. The marble is sinking, and there are cracks. Every year, my wife says we need to do something, and she is correct.

But by the next day, many miles away, it’s slipped off our to-do list. We said the same thing on Monday. Must take action. Yet again.

By pure luck, a man who’s head honcho of the cemetery, the caretaker, happened to appear while I was sitting in the entrance lobby. My wife hailed him, and they spoke.

A Town Hall permit must be obtained, but that is easy, he said. He then made some suggestions for the renovations, which he can do.

It’s quite economical, absurdly so by U.S. standards, and we got his phone number. Perhaps this year will be different. Maybe on the third of November 2015, Mama will sport new digs. It would be nice.

That would not change the annual drive into this tropical world, however. Sometimes, after our graveyard duties are done, we sit in the town’s central plaza and eat ice cream, which tastes particularly sweet in the heat.

Only Gringo graveside


LIKE EVERY YEAR, we went to the downtown cemetery this morning to tidy up the grave of my child bride’s oldest brother, gone about 25 years now.

The graveyard is directly downtown and — due to crowded conditions, I imagine — is not open the previous night, the famous Night of the Dead when relatives sit till dawn amid marigolds and candles. The graves are so tightly packed there’s no room for both relatives and tourists too.

But it’s open in the morning, and locals flood inside to gussy up the graves, light candles and incense, and leave their best wishes with the interred in broad daylight. That’s what we do. And there are no tourists because they’re recuperating after staying up all night visiting outlying villages and their splashy graveyards.

Ironically, though our town is one of the most well-known in Mexico for its Day of the Dead doings, neither of the two downtown cemeteries are open on the night of November 1. You must head out of town if you want to see the stuff that makes us famous. To places with names like Tzintzuntzan, Ihuatzio, Arocutin and my personal favorite, Cucuchucho, which sounds like a passing train.

But let’s return to our downtown graveyard.

Invariably, I am the only Gringo among the hundreds of people.

Another item of interest: Planted two plots down from my brother-in-law is a fellow — young, I imagine — who came out on the wrong end of a gunfight with cops three years ago. Here is what I remember. There was a shootout between police and some narcos in late October of 2011. It was written up in the local press.

Four days later, we were in the cemetery on our annual visit, and I noticed the fresh grave nearby, someone named Luis Enrique but his nickname was Choco. It was a plain metal marker painted black. It included his name, the date of his demise — that same late October day — and an automatic rifle was painted on there too.

Today I noticed the original metal marker still stood, but directly next to it was a nice marble headstone, also engraved with Luis Enrique’s full name, his nickname Choco — and the machine gun too.

On finishing our work, we packed up our gear — broom, dustpan, brush, trash bag, etc. — and headed to the main plaza for a nice cafecito. A couple of hours later, we dined on chicken meatballs, rice and beans.

A year from now we’ll do pretty much the same thing, the Goddess willing.

I’m no spring chicken.

The cedar casket


MY FATHER’S ASHES rest in three places.

One, a mountainside in North Carolina at a Unitarian retreat center. Two, outside his favorite motel room in north Georgia. Three, next to an old cowboy cemetery in West Texas.

I don’t know where my mother’s ashes are. I suppose my sister has them. My only aunt died recently at 88, and she too was cremated. I don’t know where those ashes are either.

But clearly we are people who go up in flames, and that has long been my plan.

Recently, however, I read something that deflected me from that death desire. There was mention of a custom-made casket of cedar. A cedar casket, like a fresh cedar closet, would smell good — to me, the inhabitant, resting inside.

As I pondered the aroma, other aspects, dramatic ones, came to mind. I pictured myself lying inside my cedar casket, dressed in my best and only suit that hangs in the Hacienda closet, my favorite tie with a picture of a happy cow, my arms straight down, one hand atop the other, eyes shut. That end of movement we all reach one day.

It’s a scene as old as the ages, the occupied coffin.

But where would I be planted? Two options: here inside the Hacienda compound with just a small marker that could be removed if necessary to avoid creeping out future homeowners. Or at the neighborhood cemetery beyond the plaza.

I vote for the cemetery. Every 2nd of November, my child bride would sit among our neighbors, there at my marigold-bedecked mound, resplendent with candlelight and incense. And I would be inside my sweet-smelling casket with a barely discernible smile.