Altars and ofrendas: honoring our loved ones

Family photos and special objects in an everyday altar-grouping in my bedroom.

Today is Halloween, the Eve of All Hallows Day, a day with roots in the Celtic Samhain (SAW-in), the holiday marking the end of summer and harvest-time, a time when the connection between the world of the living and that of the dead was seen as especially strong. The souls of the dead returned to visit, and food and drink were set out for them. Spirits of all sorts, including fairies not yet sanitized and rendered benign by Disney, were especially active.

The skeleton theme that survives into today’s candy-laden holiday on the eve of All Hallows comes from that connection to the dead; the tradition of jack-o-lanterns with fearsome grins and dressing in costume may originate in protection from those clever and not-always-friendly fairies and other spirits.

Having grown up with the sound of my Grandmother Chris reciting Celtic tales in her Scots burr, I’ve always felt more connected to All Hallow’s Day than to modern Halloween. The idea of a time to remember and honor those who have come before appeals to me. It’s not something I do just once a year, but I appreciate a reminder to be especially thoughtful and thankful for the gifts of those beloveds.

Then when we lived in New Mexico, my dear friend Denise Chavez, novelist extraordinaire and director of the Border Book Festival, taught me about the Mejicano celebration of el Dia de los Muertos with its ofrendas, offerings and altares to honor our dead, and my understanding of these universal traditions deepened.

The sandstone shelf in my office holding objects related to those who inspire my writing

I’ve always been a collector and arranger of objects that have significance to me, whether photographs or pebbles, pressed leaves or my great-grandmother’s antique button hook (visible on the porcelain tray in the photo at the top of this post). Thinking of my arrangements as a creative way to honor my own loved ones–living and dead, gives these groupings special meaning.

All of which explains why I spent part of this week not carving pumpkins into grinning jack-o-lanterns or selecting bags of candy to dispense to sugar-fueled trick-or-treaters (thought I did some of both!) but gathering objects related to my sweetheart, the late Richard Cabe, and placing them on an antique tile-topped table he particularly loved that came from my grandparents’ house in Berkeley.

One of my altars honoring Richard.

A photo of “Collateral Damage,” one of Richard’s sculptures, taken by Molly’s sweetie, Mark Allen; an article about his sculpture from a magazine, the program from his memorial service, a bowl full of pebbles, marbles, and pieces of rusted iron he kept; a paper crane he folded, a piece of sheet metal seamed for a sculpture, his portfolio, a fiber vessel he was fond of by artist and woodsman Rod Porco; a series of haiku I wrote about one of Richard’s sculptures, a candle…. (Later I added some of his favorite food and drink: a Belgian-style Trippel Ale from Fort Collins’-based New Belgium Brewery, an orange peel Chocolove chocolate bar, and a green chile breakfast burrito from Ploughboy Local Market.)

I ran out of space on the table, so I put a few objects on the cube next to his chair. (The paper and styrofoam pieces are maquettes for large sculptures.) Collecting and arranging these pieces felt good to me, not morbid or obsessive. I cried a little, but mostly I enjoyed remembering and honoring the love of my life, reminding his spirit that my home is always his, that his work, his gifts, his life will always be a part of mine.

Another few objects to remember Richard by.

Tomorrow is All Hallows Day, the day with its roots in the Celtic Samhain, and el Dia de los Muertos, a day in many traditions to honor the souls of departed loved ones. It’s also November first; Richard died on November 27th, nearly a year ago.

For me, this is a time of remembering and being thankful for the gift of Richard in my life. And continuing to walk on this new path with as generous and loving steps as I can.


Speaking of generosity, please be generous in helping out all those affected by Hurricane Sandy. We are each other’s community, near and far….