Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Days of the Dead

Before I moved to Texas, my end-of-October celebratory experience was limited to Halloween, which lost its fascination quickly after I started getting serious about health and environmental issues, and after my kids had outgrown (I thought) dressing up like Han Solo and fairy princesses. I am, of course, completely wrong about that, since I'm pretty sure they both gleefully dress up as video game characters or Sex in the City types on a regular basis. But I've gone a bit bah-humbug on the candy-giving/costuming mania over the past few years. We've handed out treats only once since we moved to this neighborhood; mostly we keep the porch light off and hunker down to watch a movie with the curtains drawn.

I still do like the idea of celebrating the dead, but I'm not sure that scoring pounds of candy is the most poetic way of doing it. The last time I "dressed up" I wore a white Victorian nightgown and pasty white makeup and drifted about the trails of the Heard Museum, a nearby nature center, to frighten paying guests. But that was over twenty years ago. More recently, I've grown fond of local Day of the Dead festivities, and of the lovely sugar skulls and crepe-paper colors, and the music that floats down the street when folks from our local barrio drive by on their way to the highway.

My grandmother was a great one for remembering those who'd gone before, but her ceremonies (which included gathering up every stray flower in the yard into a couple of buckets of water) focused on the family plot in Big Pine, on Memorial Day. Once or twice we drove up on Veterans Day to put flowers on my grandfather's grave, but Day of the Dead wasn't in our vocabulary then, despite the fact that the Valley was home to a fairly large population of second- and third- (and probably more than a few fourth-) generation Mexican immigrants.

Outside my hometown lies an old, mostly-forgotten graveyard with only a few headstones left, some engraved in Spanish, some in Russian. I've never pursued the sources of the graves, but maybe this would be a good time to do so. Sometimes we'd visit the site when I took the kids to see Grandma, and we'd go out and walk among the graves on a hot summer evening. The setting sun always made the scene a bit eerie, and once (about twenty five years ago) I took the picture here--of my daughter in her nightie next to one of the headstones that had fallen over (or had been pushed) and then cracked.

An aside: Following my own instructions (issued to my students only yesterday) to follow any question that arises with research, I conducted a quick search on Owens Valley graves and found this through Google Books (it refers to the very gravestone beside which my daughter is standing in the photo):

Josefa de Alday's tombstone reads, 'Your children wish to remember the proof of the great love they had for you.' In 1880, Josefa was 40 years old and living in Inyo County wth two children. The D. E. P. at the bottom of her stone means 'rest in peace.'

From Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra, p. 119
by Gena Philibert-Ortega

Now, in exile far from familiar graves and family bones, I've taken to enjoying what goes on locally. This year, at least one of my Visual Anthropology group projects will involve Día de los Muertos celebrations in town. The last time I taught the class was during the fall quarter a year ago, and one team visited a street party in Fort Worth to record Cowtown's version of the Day of the Dead. Because it involves community and tradition, it's a natural subject for anthropology in the first place, and an especially good topic if the focus is on recording it on film. These two guys took lovely pictures of the festivities and exhibits. This picture that opens this post is from those taken for the project.

Holidays like All Saints' and All Souls' days have roots in far more ancient traditions than the Christian beliefs that finally embraced them. Celebrating Los Días de los Muertos is itself a hybrid of Aztec and Christian views of the dead and of the afterlife, just as Halloween marries Christian and pagan rituals. I'm not sure why I now enjoy the Day of the Dead idea so much more than Halloween, except that the focus on remembrance (rather than on greed?) reassures me that when my remains have been scattered in the Sierras, or buried under a tree in an eco-cemetery somewhere, somebody might build a little altar in my honor, with pictures of things I loved and a little sugar skull. At least I'll know that nobody will be posing their daughter next to my tombstone!

Photo credit: Thanks to Alex Antonio and Drew Simon for the great picture and for inspiring the direction of the post.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Peter Patter Book

When I was little, we spent a great deal of time overseas, first in Bermuda, then Japan, then Taiwan. Between every posting (my father was career Air Force), we'd go home to my grandparents little bungalow next to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power intake and power station at Cottonwood, in the Owens River Valley in California.

The first thing my brother and I would do upon arriving, after we had been greeted by grandparents with hugs and cookies, was to grab a timeworn copy of The Peter Patter Book of Nursery Rhymes (by Leroy F. Jackson, illustrated exquisitely by Blanche Fisher Wright) and curl up on Grandma's lap to hear the poems read aloud:

Peter lives upon a mountain
Pretty near the sun,
Knows the bears and birds and rabbits
Nearly every one;
Has a home among the alders,
Bed of cedar bark,
Walks alone beneath the pine trees
Even when it’s dark.

Squirrels tell him everything
That happens in the trees,
Cricket in the gander-grass
Sings of all he sees;
Rimes from bats and butterflies,
Crabs and waterfowl;
But the best of all he gets
From his Uncle Owl.

Sometimes when its day-time,
But mostly in the night,
They sit beneath an oak tree
And hug each other tight,
And tell their rimes and riddles
Where the catty creatures prowl—
Funny little Peter Patter
And his Uncle Owl.

The telling of exploits involving one or more of our uncles was part of the total experience of hearing these poems. Since my father's two younger brothers were over ten years his junior, and close to one another in age, they had developed a friendly but spirited sibling rivalry that revealed itself upon hearing a particular favorite, "Jelly Jake and Butter Bill."

Jelly Jake and Butter Bill
One dark night when all was still
Pattered down the long, dark stair,
And no one saw the guilty pair;
Pushed aside the pantry-door
And there found everything galore,—
Honey, raisins, orange-peel,
Cold chicken aplenty for a meal,
Gingerbread enough to fill
Two such boys as Jake and Bill.
Well, they ate and ate and ate,
Gobbled at an awful rate
Till I’m sure they soon weighed more
Than double what they did before.
And then, it’s awful, still it’s true,
The floor gave way and they went thru.
Filled so full they couldn’t fight.
Slowly they sank out of sight.
Father, Mother, Cousin Ann,
Cook and nurse and furnace man
Fished in forty-dozen ways
After them, for twenty days;
But not a soul has chanced to get
A glimpse or glimmer of them yet.
And I’m afraid we never will—
Poor Jelly Jake and Butter Bill.

After she'd read (or rather recited, since she knew many of them by heart) about Jake and Bill, she proceed to tell us the story of how, when her boys were little, my Uncle Art would exclaim upon hearing the line "And no one saw the guilty pair," "Well I saw 'em too!" This was brought on by the fact that Art's older brother was named Owen, which sounded all too much like "no one"--so if Owen could see them, so could Art.

Of course, my brother and I always thought this was hilarious (Art was also known to claim, whenever anyone referred to Owen's Lake, the then-dry lake bed that dominated the landscape, "It's my lake too!"). We never got tired of hearing these stories, nor of hearing my grandmother tell them.

At some point after I'd gone off to college, married, and had children, I realized that I wanted to share those poems with my own kids. But by that time the book had disappeared from Gram's house, absconded with by some cousin or another. So one might be able to imagine my joy when several years later she acquired a copy through a book search service and presented to me and the children around the time of their birthdays in 1980, when my daughter turned one and my son four.

Lately I've been rearranging rooms and getting ready for an onslaught of visitors this coming December (my daughter will be graduating from college, at long last, after several years of working full time and going to school), and things keep reappearing after long years of being tucked away in odd corners. One of the books resurrected from a spider-webby corner of a closet was none other than the Peter Patter book. I thought of scanning some of the images to talk about here in the Cabinet, but a quick Google search led me to a Project Gutenburg edition, complete with illustrations.

Several years ago I saw a few reprints for sale in Barnes and Noble, but they had been "cleaned up" in order to meet to the present-day guidelines for political correctness to which publishers must adhere (with good reason, for the most part). But since I managed not to associate the "big black Bugoo" in my favorite rhyme, "Polly Picklenose" (which I can still recite from memory) with African Americans or become a racist as a result of reading this book (any more than I became a racist or a sexist from reading Enid Blyton as a child), I wonder about how much risk is actually involved. Gutenberg has, alas, used the revised version. A few unsavory stereotypes have been removed, but the bulk of the book is just as I remembered it, Wright's beautiful pictures, and Jackson's silly, funny, still-entertaining rhymes.

Also available through Project Gutenberg are Wright's illustrations in The Goody-Naughty Book written by Sarah Cory Rippey, and (perhaps her best known) The Real Mother Goose.

Images: The cover drawing, and "Jelly Jake and Butter Bill." The image just above is for "Hippity Hop to Bed."