Yesterday I started building my ancestor altar for Hallowmas, Samhain, los Dias de los Muertos. I’d been meaning to do it since the beginning of October, but kept finding reasons to put it off. But Friday was the day. Craig was baking apple pies in the kitchen and I was nearby in the dining area. We were keeping each other company. He ended up making the apple and brown rice salad too (with onions and raisins and walnuts, oh my!) even though we had meant to cook together. I was moving in slow motion, building those altars. The seasonal Hallowmas altar, and then the ancestor altar. That one was hard.
I opened the rattan chest where I keep a lot of altar things, and took
out the framed photos of my son Jake, my mother Kathryn and my friend
Helen. I take these out every year at Hallowmas. Then I went into the
back room where I have not yet finished sorting and putting away my
father’s things. Several boxes have not been touched since the day of
the memorial on August 3rd. I have not yet given away his clothing to
the thrift store. I have not finished deciding what to keep and what to
relase. I went through all the framed photos that we had displayed at
the memorial and chose two. One was of my mother and father taken at
his 60th birthday party in 1975. In the photo, they are laughing and
looking at each other with deep love. I love that photo. I love
remembering them that way. The other photo was one I discovered in my
dad’s albums after he died. I’d never seen it before. He’s a young
man, maybe 25 or 26, and he’s standing on board ship in the south
Pacific during World War II. He’s got his hands on his hips and a big
grin. His whole life ahead of him. I love that photo too.
I arranged the photos on the altar cloth and rearranged them several times. I added wheat and nuts and dried corn. I put an owl figurine in the center. It’s a mother & child owl that I bought in Santa Cruz last month while shopping with Silver Branch sisters Kat, Julie and Lunaea. When I saw it in the store, I remembered a potent dream about a baby owl I’d had on the anniversary of Helen’s death, September 20th. The dream made me remember how owls came to us in so many ways, both real and symbolic, that last week while she was dying. The mama owl has big eyes like She Who Watches. It took center stage on the ancestor altar. Then I covered the entire altar in black gauze, so the photos are seen through a veil. I was still not satisfied though. Something was missing. Marigolds maybe. Those may be blooming in Mexico, but not here. I do have orange calendulas still in the garden though.
It was very comforting to me to have Craig busy cooking nearby while I was building the ancestor altar. I kept popping slices of apples covered with cinnamon and lemon and brown sugar in my mouth. Sweet and tangy all at once.
Soon it was time to dress for the Samhain gathering. We packed up the apple pie, the rice salad and the photos of my son and my parents. By chance we caught an early ferry, so we had an hour to spend in our favorite bookstore on the south side of town.
Our friends had rented an unusual place for the ritual. It was a home-become-a-temple, overlooking the bay and islands beyond. The interior walls were painted a deep cinnamon color, which felt strangely comforting and exotic at the same time. Everywhere you turned, there were candles, crystals, stones, driftwood, singing bowls, assemblage art, old wooden chests rubbed to a soft patina. Altars everywhere you looked. A most peaceful place of beauty. Nourishing to the soul.
Friends arrived with hugs and smiles and kisses, laden with food and coats and capes. We began to build our ancestor altar for the evening. We heard stories of this uncle, that beloved cat, Marina’s grandmother who passed this year. "Is that your son?" asked Chely. "It is," I smiled.
The ceremony began with the soft clang of a Tibetan bell. Elaine was High Priestess, Lee played the heartbeat drum, DragonSong led us on a journey to Avalon, the Isle of Apples. I slipped into trance. We sailed over the sunless sea of our salty tears, to the isle where we met our beloved dead. We feasted on apples, we danced and played and held each other once again. My mother and father stood together with Jake in front of them, their hands resting on his shoulders. They were so glad to be together again, those three. They had the sweetest smiles on their faces. It wasn’t my dad so much who came to me, it was my son, my son, my son . . . His face glowed with tenderness, clarity and contentment.
I cried steadily through the trance journey. Salty mermaid tears.
When we came back into our bodies, we opened the circle and gave each other long, hard hugs. Then we feasted. On apples, of course. Two apple pies, rice and apple salad, and hot applesauce. There was other food — stuffed squash, Thai noodles, black bean and corn salsa. But it was the apples that stood out for me. A common everyday fruit with the mysterious five-pointed star within.
The fruit of death . . . which is life. The fruit of life . . . which is death.
Ah, apples! I said to myself. It’s apples I need to have on my ancestor altar.
I even dreamed last night of shopping at the co-op and coming across a display of gleaming red organic apples. "Oh!" I said to myself in the dream. "I must have red apples on my ancestor altar!"
So I am heading out now, for the Church of the Old Mermaids Beach, where an old apple tree grows on the threshold of wooded path and rocky beach. I’ll wash the apples in mermaids’ tears and bring them home again.