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In Mexico the whole Halloween thing is overshadowed by a more ancient version of the holiday: a combination of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day called Dia de Muertos (“Day of [the] Dead” — which this year is today, November 2nd). On this day the Mexicans celebrate the lives of the people they’ve lost, with altars. The altars typically have a picture of the late dearly beloved, as well as bottles of whatever libations and vices the person preferred, favorite foods, and symbolic objects.

Because both my parents would have turned 100 this year, Tom and I decided to put up an altar to our four parents. We traced caricatures of them, then put out champagne for Evelyn, his mom, and fishing line for Ken, his dad. We added fabric from Hawaii, which they often visited.

The altar to our parents: steak, champagne, and the things they loved.

The altar to our parents: steak, champagne, and the things they loved.

My mom, Betty, loved jewelry, so I laid some out. My dad was an optometrist, so I put out some broken glasses for him (hope he fixes them during the night) and my camera because he never stopped taking pictures. Also a big bottle of beer; he kept small ones in the fridge in his basement workshop. For both of them, some shells and sea glass. They loved the ocean.

Closeups of the drawings we made of our parents appear below. Click any one to enlarge and for captions.

For sustenance, a couple of steaks, which all four loved, pan de muertos (a traditional sweet bread, baked only at this time of year), candles and marigolds — a flower whose scent is said to attract souls and is sold by the bushel this week. Voila! Our altar was done.

Before we made our altar, we went downtown to tour other altars. One for a child had his own stuffed animals. Another woman clearly loved Starbucks coffee, and another Diet Coke. Lots of bottles of Tequila, packs of cigarettes, and fruit. Hot sauce. The hotels and stores had altars for celebrities: Elizabeth Taylor, who, along with her scadalous lover Richard Burton put this town on the map; Frida Kahlo, whose image is everywhere; Pancho Villa, and other revolutionaries and soldiers for freedom from the Spanish. Or from the last dictatorship.

This woman must've visited Starbucks every day.

This woman must’ve visited Starbucks every day.

A child, with all his stuffed animals.

A child, with all his stuffed animals.

Look closely: this one features a live (dead) model.

Look closely: this one features a live (dead) model.

Here I am, admiring an altar to Elizabeth Taylor.

Here I am, admiring an altar to Elizabeth Taylor.

There is nothing sad about these altars: they are tributes and celebrations. Putting ours together made us focus on our parents for a bit; studying the others made us appreciate so many people, even strangers, and the people who still love them.

I’m so glad we made our own altar. It meant a lot, to both of us. And after we took pictures we drank the champagne and ate the steaks. Our parents would have wanted that.

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