Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Of Russian Thistle and Headstones

It was a Sunday that began like many others spent at my parents' house while I visit - with my madre yelling up the stairs at me to get up if I wanted to x, y or z. This particular time was y, where y = go to breakfast with my ninos at their restaurant (and you thought algebra was useless). Knowing that breakfast would involve the best bowl of posole on this earth, it didn't take much for me to wipe the lagaña out of my eyes and get ready for the day.

Ironically, I passed on the posole once the spicy scents of the entire menu of food filled my hungry imagination. The red chile was too enticing, not to mention the freshness of corn tortillas made regularly in the room next door - so the chilaquiles were what brought a big sonrisa to my face as they were laid in front of me.

Throughout the meal, my parents, godparents and I talked about the família and all the new additions to it. Many of my cousins are having children and it's fun to see how our characteristic genes recreate themselves in new, vibrant ways. We're all an extension of our roots and I'm learning that the key to my feeling whole is to renew my commitment to the traditions that have defined my very existence.

Following the desayuno rico, we made our way to the town cemetery for a few hours of work. You see, el Día de los Muertos approaches, and it's an act of honor and love to maintain not only the memories, but the gravesite of loved ones lost. It is more than just an act, though, it is an obligation.

While I wish I could brag and say I did tons of work that day, the truth is I was a supporting character to my parents and godmother who labored wielding paint brushes, brooms, rakes, hoes and weed-eaters. Once the plots were free of the weedy overgrowth and the borders were suitably whitewashed for another season of regular visits, flowers were places in the holders to bring new life to the blessed ground.

Breaking the monotony of this round of cemetery duty, I learned that my mother's grandparents and great-grandfather were also buried there. You would think that as much time as we've spent among the graves over the years, that I would have known that, but alas, it was news to me.

As we approached the site in the older portion of the grounds, I noticed a large colony of russian thistle, commonly known as tumbleweed, thriving. Contrary to the cartoonish version of it that depicts an old west town bisected by a dirt road, tumbleweed bouncing happily down the thoroughfare, the stuff is pretty nasty. It's full of thorns and gets easily tangled in whatever happens to be in its way as it does its tumbling act.

Wack! Wack! Wack!

That took care of that.

Revealed in the brambly tierra was a white marble headstone that proclaimed the name of my great grandmother - Francisca Ramirez. The dates and information depicted on the headstone made my heart beat a bit faster than before - it was all etched en español.

Directly to her right was a four foot wrought iron cross, which stands as sentinel over the resting place of nana Francisca's father - known as Fimbres. There are details of names and locations in a book, but my cousin has it in El Centro, so I'll have to find out more about their stories. What I do know is that Francisca was married to my great tata Jose, who was buried yet another few feet up the slightly inclined hill. After cutting away more of the weeds, I noticed that growing inside the concrete border of his grave were several vigilant iris. No flowers, but the bulbs and plants were there in defiance of the tumbleweed.

"Those have been there for as long as I can remember, even when I was a little girl," my nina remarked to me when I pointed them out. "And over there is the mesquite tree that we used to sit under when we ate lunch during our break from cleaning the graves."

Looking back 48 hours or so, I can only smirk at how odd a person I've become. Mundane moments to everyone around me can turn out to be powerfully instructive memories to my very identity and worthy mile-markers on my path to reconnecting to mis raíces. Resting now in the tierra, surrounded by nature in its various forms, are keys to the door that I keep trying to unlock.

I'm sure part of it will be answering the question that my parents and nina threw out to no one in particular that day: "Who's gonna clean our graves when we pass?"

...and I find that a shovel and rake are already in my willing hands.

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