Earthworms’ Castings

By Jean Ponzi

My Day Of The Dead


The Mexican custom that celebrates death – by partying with departed loved ones – is one of my favorite ways in the world to make life fun.

Folk past and present, in my circle, join to embody the spirit of the day!

First we build the ofrenda, where our tributes and offerings will be displayed. Traditionally a table or tower, this year ours looks like a tree: the century oak behind my home that gracefully missed a neighbor’s porch when it toppled the spring after I emerged, a bride, from behind its massive trunk to join my true love Dale in marriage, right here in our big back yard, where its giant stump stands still. Bedecked with fond remembrance, this ofrenda blossoms as a friend-and-family tree.

Dale leads the building crew, inspired by his late father, Don, who raised a family of four boisterous boys on projects involving concrete to conduit, motors to mortar, building everyday-living skills. My late grampa Frank, who built his own family’s home, working nights after his paying job, swings his phantom hammer too.

Beloved late aunties, Corrine, Ruth, Dorothy, Pauline, Anne and Mary, supervise our baking of el pan de muerto, bread of the dead. We shape it into bones festooned with sweet white frosting. Forming dough clavicle, humerus, femur, I recite the musical names that hold us in our human forms, and we burst into kitchen song, as women often do: “The thigh bone’s connected to the – KNEE bone …”

My late grandma, Amelia, leads our skull-masked parade. Grandma always loved a parade, from her girlhood on Minnesota’s Iron Range, where the Fourth of July is still every town’s extravaganza, to her long life in Milwaukee, where the historic Great Circus Parade annually fills downtown streets with gaudy, gilded band-topped wagons. Our line of grinning calaveras revels, rattling, round the room – making fun a matter of life and death!

Radiating spirit Green, Rachel and Dwight Crandell shake their rainforest rain sticks, flashing jaguar spots and quetzal plumes. Roger Pryor hikes in arm-in-arm with Lewis Green, singing Froggy Went A-Courtin’ and laying down the law.

And the children my family loves, though we barely knew them – Lucy Helen and Yvonne Amelia – dart giggling through our dancing feet. Aren’t kids always the life of a party?

Plenty of music enlivens this day. Russ, our eminent bearded friend, strums his ghostly guitar. Dale’s late mother, Elma, and her whole family of vaudeville-theater musicians materialize banjo, clarinet, fiddle and piano and strike up the liveliest tunes. Charlie yodels Happy Trails to Youuuu. And Larry Weir, late radio friend to many in these parts, plays airwaves, showcasing the best from singer-songwriters he loved and knew. We want to hear from them all, dead or alive.

This year, our Queen of Dia de los Muertos is my late and always-best friend Sarah. She led all our most fun, festive occasions: Thanksgiving, New Years, Passover, birthdays, and her all-time ultimate favorite, Christmas.

Sarah turned into a Witch in this season, bewigged in orange, laced into black, cackling and hexing, a drop-dead cool speller. Replaying the way we were witches together, I dress in black sequins, swirling cape, and my own stove-pipe-crooked hat. Astride my familiar, a giant earthworm, I chant the kind of gross-out we love to deploy: The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle in your snout. They turn your eyes a slimy green and puss comes out like whipping cream!”

Sarah was also, and foremost, a painter, as was our colorful friend Bill Kohn. We honor them with our brushes, swirling every-hued patterns on skulls sculpted from sugar, painted around the ofrenda, tattooed onto our living skin.

Skeletons romp through this holy space. Some are ephemeral. Some are real. All are glittering! Twittering tunes both joyous and exquisitely sad, we dance our loves and losses to a timeless beat. Good life, going ‘round, coming ‘round, cycling.

¡Viva los Muertos!

Long Live our Beloved Dead!

Jean Ponzi celebrates All Things Green as host of the environmental talk show “Earthworms” on FM-88 KDHX. Listen live Mondays, 7-8 p.m. or tune in anytime (anywhere!) to www.kdhx.org.