Every year during Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), I help my friend Maria haul fresh flowers to the graveyard where many of her family members are buried. It’s usually an all-day affair. Her family has almost as many skeletons below ground as in the closet. This year Tia Juana and her 18-year-old daughter Lupita tag along.
“Oh, there’s Tio Jaime,” Tia Juana says, pulling Lupita and me to a stop in front of a tilting tombstone. “Remember Jaime?”
Jaime used to find great joy in putting his glass eye in the menudo at family reunions. No amount of therapy could get me to eat menudo again.
Tia Juana, never having seen much distinction between the living and the dead, is dressed like she’s having tea with the queen. Lupita is going through her “Beyonce phase.” And I’m in my usual “fashion follows function.” If I had on a hard hat, we’d look like a female version of The Village People.
Even if Tia Juana owned a pair of sensible shoes, I doubt she’d wear them. On this particular day, she’s teetering on two-inch red spikes. Every time she takes a step, her heels drive into the ground like tent stakes. Then, with the momentum of pulling her foot free, her knee pops up to her waist. She looks like she’s performing in a high school marching band competition.
With Lupita at one elbow and me at the other, Tia Juana aerates the memorial lawn.
“Dear Rosa,” Tia Juana says. “The finest teacher in the county.”
Dear Rosa used to entertain us by dressing up in a grass skirt and bra, and doing the hula while reciting risque limericks.
When we get to an unusually well-kept grave, Tia Juana seems to draw a blank.
“Oh, Claudia,” she finally says, reading the marker.
It doesn’t ring a bell for me. I look over at Lupita. She’s yawning. “Oh, you remember, Claudia,” Tia Juana says. “She was a very good housekeeper.” housekeeper.”
Well, that narrows it down.
Other than her victory over dust, Claudia must have been as boring as toast. Tia Juana pulls out a compact and checks her teeth for lipstick. Lupita lights a cigarette, and I chew off a hangnail. After a respectable amount of time, we move on.
Apparently, this fiesta isn’t moving fast enough to suit Tia Juana. Pulling free, she wobbles off on tiptoe while Lupita and I lean against a tree to enjoy the ambiance.
This graveyard is what a graveyard should be: old and spooky.
Nowadays, they plant you like corn, in perfectly straight rows with perfectly uniform markers flat on the ground, so they don’t have to weed-eat. I would roll over if it were me down there. I want my eternal resting place to be wild and unpredictable, with my head stone just slightly off center and facing in whatever direction I choose. In other words, I want death to resemble life as much as possible.
To end up like Claudia makes me shudder. When my relatives stand in front of my grave, I want them to have something to talk about.
“If I turn into a boring person,” I say, “I want you to let me know.”
Slowly, Lupita exhales a chain of white rings into my face.
“Consider yourself notified,” she says.
Gina Tiano is the author of Life in the Bike Lane, available at Amazon.com.