By Lydia Wylie-Kellermann as part of her series on parenting- Learning from Laughter.
With the table covered in newspaper, the three of us began carving pumpkins. Isaac embraced the gunk helping to pull it out while the Halloween music played and the moon shown out the window. When it came time to cut the faces, I sat beside him and asked what he wanted. We drew it out together in marker. He told me he wanted square eyes and a triangle nose. Out of the blue he insisted that the pumpkin have a mustache. Then I asked about the mouth. Do you want a smile? “No. It’s a sad pumpkin.” I tried to draw a sad mouth. Then he said “Pumpkin crying.” He was asking for tears. I carved out some tears falling from the square eyes. He smiled in total delight and pride at his sad pumpkin.
I smiled too thinking how our hope for this boy is that he can feel total freedom and acknowledgement of his own grief and anger and joy. And here in this moment, he claimed a sad pumpkin with no shame. No note of defiance in his voice or sense of the unusual. The pumpkin was just sad and that was ok.
As we carved, I was struck by images of carving pumpkins with my mom ten years ago. The four of us spread that newspaper and pulled out that gunk for the last time all together. Yet, here the tradition continues and I feel the sense of sacred time as we light the candles on the porch.
Isaac went trick-or-treating around the block. He was the only trick-or-treater this year. I thought back to my childhood when the block was filled with kids and every light on the block was on with candy ready. This year, I couldn’t trust that a porch light meant that they had candy. The dozens of kids that live on the block now go to the suburbs in search of more candy and “safer” doors to knock on. A friend overheard the librarian two blocks away say, “I am glad some kids came to the library for candy since I can’t trust opening my door at home anymore.” It felt like a walk of sadness, hope, and an act of clinging on to something that is almost lost.
The weekend went on like this filled with such rich gifts of tradition, memory, and grief as we celebrated Halloween, All Saints Day, Dia de los Muertes, and Samhain all tangled together. Saturday we joined hundreds in honoring Grace Boggs joining the great cloud of witnesses. At church on Sunday, we built an altar of pictures, mementos, and stories of those we have loved and lost.
Isaac walked up to the front with Erinn and looked out at the community and speaking right into the microphone spoke the names “Grandma Bea. Baubee. Two.” The latter two being his first fish that are dead and buried in our back yard. And later when the names were read aloud again, he rang the gong with such seriousness and desire to be right in that moment.
During nap time, I had pulled out copies of the early letters my mom wrote to friends and families right after she had been diagnosed with brain cancer. I cried as I heard her talk about me as a child and her despair at the prospect of dying without walking beside us as we grow up or growing old with my dad. This time I read the words with new agony as a mother in love with her child and a partner in love who often imagines the greatest gift would be to grow old next to Erinn.
That night after Isaac was asleep in bed, I sat outside around a bonfire in our yard. A circle of friends, neighbors, and family beside me, each coming to celebrate the Celtic feast of Samhain (pronounced sow-win). Celebrating Samhain this year, was part of a commitment we made to recover our own indigenous roots as part of work against white supremacy and our own privilege.
In the dark of the night and warmth of the fire, we recalled the ancient practice of honoring the night when the veil is thinnest between the living and the dead. We called the ancestors to be present and poured a glass for them. While we sat listening to the stories, songs, tears, and laughter, we each slowly hallowed out a gourd.
I watched as the pine wood turned to coals mindful of my own fear of vulnerability and the tears that could come and wouldn’t stop. It’s been ten years since my mom died and I still can’t talk about it easily. It’s too hard to say her name out loud when ancestors are named. New Year’s Eve (her feast day) I retreat into the woods not wanting to see anyone. I can write about her with the safety of the pen when the risk of my voice cracking or the tears falling is eased. But damn it is hard to say out loud how much I miss her or even to acknowledge with my breath that she is gone.
In this confessional spirit, I thought about Isaac. I didn’t teach him about these traditions this year, he taught me. He taught me that it is ok to be a sad pumpkin and to let the tears flow. That it takes courage in the simple act of naming the ancestors names. That death is both sacred and ordinary. That it is important to do these rituals again and again, year after year, no matter what.
Filled by his spirit, I spoke out loud before that fire telling a story and then going to the place that strikes the deepest in me- singing. With the help of my sister filled with her own tears, and me with my diaphragm squeezed and the pain of heartburn, we sang “Will the Circle be Unbroken” crying out about our mother’s body being carried away and placed in the grave.
After hours of stories and just coal before us, we each scooped out a coal and placed it in our hallowed out gourd. We carried them into our homes and lit candles and woodstoves. The light and warmth remained as a reminder of the community fire from which we come and all the ancestors who were so alive amongst us that night. As I fell asleep, I was mindful of the glowing sad pumpkin on our porch and the gift of this life.