It’s the Sunday after Christmas, 2015. Wrapped in coats and scarves and hats, my father and I head out to the Assumption Catholic Cemetery in Simi Valley to pay homage to my mother’s ashes, as he has every Sunday after Mass since she passed away in September.
At the cemetery, the Southern California sun rakes gold across the year-round green, green grass. Despite the pronounced lack of visible winter, people have decorated their loved one’s graves with festive objects of the season: real and fake poinsettias, plastic snowmen, winged angels, sparkly bows, and dozens of miniature Christmas trees—green, yes, but also white, silver, blue, red—decked out with tinsel garlands and tiny colored globes. One headstone has a glittery toy sleigh riding over it; another, a scuffed-up toy army jeep. I feel both fascinated and intrusive, like I’m looking at things so intimate they almost shouldn’t be seen. How can cotton snow sprinkled over a granite slab with someone’s name on it make me feel so vulnerable?
My father has brought along a bouquet of coral roses—“¡A Georgie le encantaba este color!” he’d exclaimed when we’d found it in the $4.99 bin at Trader Joe’s—as well as an ornament he made by wiring together three gold Christmas balls and a bit of something evergreen from his suburban front yard, something that does not smell like pine or mountains or anything at all.
I hold his arm and we enter the shadowed crypt area where my mother’s ashes are interred behind marble in a nicho eight feet off the ground. He unfolds the plastic stepping stool he keeps in his Toyota for this purpose, climbs up, and removes a brass vase from its holder in front of her nicho. Then he leads me back to a room where people arrange the flowers they’ve brought on a counter next to a sink. He uses his good hand to wipe water off the counter and throw out the wilted yellow rosebuds from last week. I help him unpack the fresh roses from their plastic wrapper, and he cuts each stem down to size and carefully arranges them in the brass vase. Then he remembers to add water and the rose’s leaves get wet and that feels like life to me.
Back at the wall of nichos he ascends his stool, places the vase in its bracket, and has me hand him the evergreen-and-globe ornament, which he hangs upside-down from the lip of the vase. He comes down and I go up and rearrange the leaves to reveal the brilliant rose petals; their deep color glows like a Caribbean sunset. Suddenly I’m overcome with sensate memories of Puerto Rican diaspora Christmases past: my brothers and sisters-in-law and parents and I dancing to aguinaldos in my mother’s SoCal kitchen, balancing glasses of vino tinto in our hands, our nostrils filling with the oregano scent of pernil asado in the oven; the slimy feel of the platanos verdes my mother has whirred into a masa for pasteles in the Cuisinart she borrowed from me and kept for years; my mother teaching my niece how to properly smash and salt the fried tostones as soon as they’re lifted out of the hot oil; the delectable sabor of the first bite of cuerito between my teeth, its leathery crunch on one side offsetting the soft sinking sensation of the pork fat on the other; my dad handing us kids cold grass clippings to fill the shoeboxes under our beds, fodder for the camels of the Tres Reyes Magos.
I scrutinize my father’s decorative arrangement, decide it is perfect, and photograph it with my cellphone for family posterity while my father sits down in a folding camp chair and takes out his blue Rosary beads, the special ones that our wealthy mexicana friend Eugenia had personally blessed at the Vatican by Pope John Paul II. He closes his eyes and fingers the beads and silently recites the Rosary, as he has every Sunday after Mass since my mother passed away in September.
All photos courtesy of the author. Hero image features the author alongside her mother.
To learn more about Diana Rico, visit her website.