Former frazzled IT project managers, Lesley Quinn and her husband pulled off miraculous simultaneous midlife career changes. Seven months of the year, Lesley now coaches students in the writing of college application essays, which (theoretically) leaves her a blissful five months each year for travel and her own writing. Her nonfiction has appeared in the Gettysburg Review, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and numerous anthologies. She’s currently working on Not Paris, a series of linked vignettes about raising a child on the autism spectrum.
Editor's Choice (Kristin) - 2013 Raymond Carver Contest
My recipe for mole negro has twenty-nine ingredients and takes all day to make. You start by charring tomatillos, tomatoes, onions, and pasilla chilies until they’re dark and soft, and your kitchen smells like…well, it smells like what I imagine a kitchen in Oaxaca would smell like. While all this soaks in a bowl of boiling water, you start grinding up a long list of seeds, nuts, herbs, and improbable things like chocolate and bananas. Tired people use already-ground-up spices, but there’s nothing like grinding them by hand, one ingredient at a time, using a mortar and pestle. Beginning with a stick of cinnamon, you push down with all your upper body strength on the pestle, and as you press, you turn the pestle a bit—breaking, grinding, splintering, crushing—until what you have, eventually, is cinnamon dust. You do the same thing with the pumpkin seeds and the nuts and the cloves and everything else dry enough to pulverize.
Instead of an authentic bowl-shaped volcano-stone mortar like the one pictured in my cookbook, I have a Japanese porcelain bowl with a ribbed interior; it works okay but it feels too delicate for mole. The good Mexican ones are called molcajetes—mol-kah-HET-ay. They’re impressively primitive, and also decorative, and I love saying the word. Molcajete. After some looking around I find an authentic molcajete in a shop near my home, but instead of buying it I decide I’d rather get mine in Mexico. It will have more of a story that way.
Sitting at the foot of the stairs directly below my sleeping husband are the cremains of Uncle Keith, heavy as a brick, inside a black plastic box, seams carefully sealed with clear shipping tape. We wonder what we’re meant to do with these final fragments of his bone and ash. For weeks now we’ve been stepping over Uncle Keith to climb the stairs to our bedroom. I don’t know what Dan thinks about this. I can’t decide if it’s reprehensible or refreshingly ordinary.
In the days immediately following Keith’s death, though, we did manage to improvise a shrine-like Uncle Keith tableau in our dining room. Dan parked Keith’s old Remington on the buffet, we pushed some flowers from the garden into a vase, lit a few votives, and stood back, thinking, now what?
Good recipe for mole, yes. Instructions for honoring the dead, not so much.
After traveling for almost twenty-four hours, Allison and I still have three more to kill in a muggy Mexico City bus terminal before a long ride through dark mountains to the town of Oaxaca. I’m grimy. My rings are tight and my arms too heavy to dig out a toothbrush.
At home, my husband and daughter have gone out for potstickers and mu shu chicken, I’m guessing, and are now asleep—Dan in our big bed upstairs, our daughter downstairs with her dog, two little blonde heads on one pillow.
Later this week, muscular men will deliver the European mattress we encouraged our chiropractor to help us justify, and I expect it to transform my life. I imagine waking, big stretch and smile, before the alarm goes off. After recording dreams for later analysis, I will sit down with my family to enjoy a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal with nuts, dried apricots and fat-free milk—all ingredients organic and fair trade—and we will read the day’s headlines on our respective iPads and have spirited, well-informed conversations about world affairs without fuming. I will return phone calls promptly and read the Greeks. Not only will we be debt free, we will save the correct percentage of our income for retirement. We will say grace before meals and eat slowly. I will plan dinner in advance and stop on my way home for fresh ingredients. Our refrigerator will be bright and inviting—no liquefied lettuce or flaccid carrots lurking behind the ketchup and the capers.
Mine will be a satisfying life filled with purpose and meaning—just as being down here, away from the weight and worry of everyday, will wake me to my privileged life and suffuse me with well-being and gratitude. Everything will finally add up, I decide, blinking my sandy eyes under the midnight buzz of fluorescent bus-station fixtures.
For my 50th birthday Allison gave me this extravagant gift: five days and six nights in Oaxaca for their annual Day of the Dead celebrations. Still en route, we wait in a seedy cafeteria in chairs bolted to the floor a few inches too far from a sticky, bolted-down Formica table. Hanging at intervals from the ceiling, five TVs broadcast static full volume. No one appears to be in charge. People come and go: men dressed in mismatched components of polyester suits, weary women with wide faces, long braids, and worn sandals.
Right now whole fingerprints are visible on the lenses of Allison’s stylish eyeglasses. The linen of her white shirt is wrinkled—insanely, comically—and her burgundy curls are still smashed on one side from the airplane, a fact she is unlikely to discover; she’s not big on mirrors. Watching her root around in her bottomless purse, I admire the unapologetic unruliness of her. She has a large brain and a list of impressive professional accomplishments to her credit, but what I love is her messy, wild-ass nonconformity. She files Supreme Court briefs on behalf of the disabled by day; by night she paints whimsical women with wacky orange hair on miniature plates. Lately, she’s been making hearts out of two stuck together Brillo pads and gluing sparkly things to make faces on pockmarked Styrofoam wig-heads.
“I’m starving,” she says, surfacing with her wallet. “Aren’t you starving?” Without waiting for an answer she wanders off with her asymmetrical hair, American bills wadded up in her pocket. She returns bearing a crude bowl shaped out of aluminum foil: cheesy potatoes with steamed onions, the cheese burned to a hard crust on the bottom. We pick at it with flimsy forks and tackle, earnestly—like homework—our respective stacks of unread New Yorkers. (She’s about seven issues behind; I’m down to one.)
But Allison seems distracted. Uncharacteristically serious. Under these tiresome TVs and humming lights, I try to be on vacation.
A young boy in a stretched-out T-shirt hovers near Allison as we plow purposefully through our magazines. He speaks assertively in a hoarse voice, draping half his body onto our table. Allison and I raise our eyebrows and shrug: no, sorry, we don’t understand.
What does he want? I reach for my purse, pull out a piece of gum, pop it into my mouth, leaving my bag in my lap.
Shit. Why did I not offer him some gum at least? If I give him some now, an obvious afterthought, won’t he still find me contemptible?
God, I’m tired.
We keep reading (or, in my case now, pretending to read) until the boy taps Allison’s shoulder and points to the burnt cheesy crust on the foil. She smiles and gestures for him to take it. Nodding once, he scoops up the foil and hurries out of the cafeteria into the terminal’s half-light.
Just as I’m finishing up the theater review in my final New Yorker, the boy returns to ask more questions we can’t understand. “Lo siento,” I attempt. Sorry. Allison holds out a handful of coins. I find some coins, too. But what’s he supposed to do with American quarters?
Minutes later he returns with a bag of large, powdery green, disc-shaped hard candies. He’s vigorously sucking on one so large he can’t quite close his mouth. Peppermint. With smudgy hands he holds out the bag. What? He came back to share? Politely, I pull one out, and while he’s offering one to Allison, I drop mine surreptitiously into my pocket. I smile at him. He tries to smile at me. He has dimples.
His name is Jimmy, turns out, which he pronounces Jeemy. In the margins of my magazine he prints carefully, slowly, my pen in his little fingers, and in this way he makes me understand that he lives outside of Oaxaca, he is proud to be a Zapotec Indian, he is ocho años.
I point to Allison and then to myself. “From San Francisco,” I say semi-buoyantly. “California?”
I take his picture with my iPhone and show him the digital image. On the tiny screen his eyes are large and dark. He looks disturbingly serious.
When it’s time for our bus, Allison and I stand and say adiós to Jeemy. He looks like he might cry and this surprises me. “Por favor?” I say, painting a smile on my own face with a forefinger. He refuses. I nod and wave goodbye, no longer buoyant.
Across the now deserted terminal we shuffle toward our bus and discover, when we get there, that all the other first-class passengers have been waiting in an air-conditioned room with padded armchairs. They have their own bathroom and small complimentary packages of imitation Oreos and bottles of cold water. I grab a water and pocket some cookies for later.
At dawn in Oaxaca, outside the window of our disappointing hotel, roosters are crowing. We lie on scratchy, rug-like blankets atop hard beds, our hair still wet from showers. Grainy stuff from the tile floor is stuck to the moist soles of our feet—it turns out to be crumbs and small buttons of pulverized cookies with sharp shards of linty peppermint candy—the stuff I forgot was in my pocket.
Allison exhales deeply.
“We didn’t exactly plan it…but I should have called him,” Allison is saying, staring at the ceiling. “Of course I should have.”
“Plan what?” I ask.
“The yahrtzeit,” she says. “The gravestone unveiling.”
“Right. Last weekend. Julie’s brother.”
A big-time trial attorney in Boston, Julie’s brother is mad because he wasn’t notified early enough to attend. He would have come, as would Julie’s whole extended family from the East Coast, of course, if only someone had called him sooner. I force my eyes open. Allison is pressing on her eyeballs with her fingertips. “Why didn’t I call him?”
I wasn’t invited either but I decide not to point this out. “Was this your job?” I ask instead. “Why not Julie’s husband? Why not Julie’s daughter? Is this the job of the best friend?”
At least in her tradition there are names for the rituals of death. Yarhtzeit. Kaddish. Over here in goyim-land, we got bupkis. I console myself with the fact that, because of my stepdad, at least I know more Yiddish than she does.
She snores softly.
Suddenly it occurs to me—stupidly!—that Oaxaca is going to make Allison miss everything about Julie. For one thing, Julie loved Oaxaca—she loved the folk art, the food, the people. Allison and Julie and their daughters traveled to Mexico many times, and Julie was, like Allison, an extraordinarily gifted power-shopper. Legend has it, she could walk into a store, immediately zero in on whatever was comic or kitschy or strangely soulful or quirky and colorful—usually on sale—and walk out ten minutes later lugging bags of deeply discounted treasure. She was also sardonic and quick-witted. She made Allison laugh.
I, on the other hand, am often slow and painfully sincere and occasionally clueless and, at times, disappointingly introverted. I am not, nor will anyone ever be, Julie. And yet some part of me wonders, as I close my eyes for just a second, does this gift from Allison, this 50th birthday trip to Oaxaca, mean I’m being promoted? Moving up one position on Allison’s hierarchy of friends?
Just as I feel myself starting to drift, Allison turns to face me. “So now everyone is mad at me.”
“I’m not.” I sit up and rub stuff off the bottoms of my feet.
Our conversation wanders next to the subject of her parents—maybe because her mother is knowledgeable and confident about the proper codes of conduct for every situation. Once, when they visited from Cincinnati, Allison tells me, she took her parents to Fisherman’s Wharf to observe the sea lions, the ones who heave themselves onto piers and lie motionless for hours. Her mother, wearing a tailored cream-colored Escada pantsuit and matching gold-trimmed pumps, her hair carefully straightened and her fingers freshly manicured, glared at the colony of giant brown, boneless blobs and demanded finally, “Why are these things here?” She glared at Allison. “They’re not even cute.”
Something about this story makes me roll around on my hard mattress in screaming, choking, pee-in-your-pants hysterics until I realize I’ve let myself go too far; it really isn’t that funny. But they’re not even cute? I continue to shriek into my pillow, concluding suddenly that if I don’t get a handle on myself, I’ll soon be sobbing. Snaking up from that dark repository of ambiguous sadness, these sudden, surprising tears. Everything in my life feels impossibly burdensome—my malfunctioning daughter, my complicated, always otherwise-occupied husband, our long ago failure to welcome a conceived-by-mistake second child, our too-expensive mortgage, the absurd pace of our lives, our inability to identify an appropriate place to deposit Uncle Keith. All of it, all of it—suddenly, just too much. Too, too much.
Allison watches neutrally as I struggle to get a grip.
We’re quiet for a while and then, as the people of Oaxaca begin to wake, we sleep.
When Julie was buried last year, it was in a shockingly plain pine box, which I had occasion to see at her actual funeral (because to this I was invited). Her gravestone, Allison told me—the one unveiled last week in an East Bay cemetery—is small and rectangular and it lies flat against the earth. A lawn mower can roll right over it.
Julie’s widowed husband recently reported to Allison that he’s ready for her friends to orchestrate the removal of her clothing from his closet. Allison thinks he’s seeing someone. I watch her face to see if we consider this scandalous. She scrutinizes a hangnail, shaking her head almost imperceptibly.
Through inattention and a series of grotesque medical mistakes, Uncle Keith died violently and alone on a linoleum floor under a stainless steel x-ray table in a sticky pool of blood while an inexperienced weekend radiology tech ran for help.
I used to mail Uncle Keith homemade chocolate chip cookies in exchange for his encouragement to keep writing. When he came to the Bay Area, I cooked him red meat with Béarnaise sauce and baked potatoes. (He called anything green “bunny food.”) But our relationship soured suddenly several years ago when he was so unnecessarily vicious in his editorial advice about a piece I wrote that I never got over it. He used words like “artless” and “over-wrought’” and “self-indulgent”—and probably he was right (he was right)—but I was terribly wounded and very mad and our long, affectionate exchange of faxes and cookies ended right there.
The injury crusted over, but when Keith fell on hard times and Dan moved him north to be closer to us, my warmth was inauthentic, dinners were comprised of grilled fish and huge salads, and I uttered not one word to him about writing.
In the lobby of our dismal Oaxacan hotel at around noon, Allison and I see our first marigold- and candle-covered altar: Day of the Dead. This is why we’ve come, and in my sudden excitement I take a ridiculous number of pictures, turning my phone this way and that.
Out on the diesel streets of Oaxaca, it’s a warm morning with weak November sunlight. Everyone carries flowers—huge bundles of marigolds—in their arms, on their heads, filling carts, and wheelbarrows, and pickup trucks, and the back seats of beat-up Volkswagens. Shopkeepers hang multi-colored flags of tissue paper skeletons. The air is filled with an odd combination of purpose, solemnity, and celebration. I feel a wave of exhilaration followed by another mysterious surge of sadness.
Even when Julie was alive, I considered Allison my best friend. Something about the rebel in her, the scofflaw, the flyer-in-the-face-of-convention—she challenges me with her disorder and loosens my controlled version of spontaneity. As she always does when we travel, Allison gasps in response to everything beautiful, swoons when presented with something delicious. She savors. At a restaurant near the cathedral square, she orders trout braised in apple cider. “But no bones and no head,” she emphasizes in English to our ish-only waiter. When it arrives and she lifts the first forkful to her mouth, she closes her eyes. “Oh…my…God,” she moans in ecstasy. “This is the…most…delicious…thing in-the-world.” (She says this frequently.) We share entrees; we eat off the same plate. In less than a day, I predict, we will be discerning connoisseurs of limonada fresca. Alsoflan.
After lunch, we move with intention through the colonial streets in our rubber-soled sandals. Leaving no gallery or tchotchke shop un-attacked, Allison acquires “heart” art for a Julie-shrine. This, I see, is shopping fueled by grief. I run to keep up.
Everywhere in Oaxaca we see elaborate altars—in every store, school, church, hotel, home—and each is covered with blankets of orange and magenta flowers, fragile sugar skeletons and hearts, photographs of loved ones, bunches of plantains, vases of white and red gladioli, plates of rice and small bowls of red mole. Everything is lovingly, artfully arranged.
Allison and I finally decide, conclusively, that our hotel has insufficient soul. The bananas on its inferior altar, we realize in retrospect, are badly bruised, the marigolds wilted. Also, the mattresses are hard, the blankets itchy, the coffee insufferably weak. We imagine the young men behind the desk have hard lives and boring jobs, and we feel bad about that, but they’re not charm-able and they appear to actively dislike us. Nothing in this hotel can be characterized as exquisite or delicious.
“There’s a cartoon,” I say as we set out in search of improved accommodations. “It has a middle-aged couple telling a travel agent, ‘We want On the Road, but with B&Bs.’ Well, we want Day of the Dead with down pillows.”
We pack ourselves up and relocate to a brightly colored B&B with a gorgeous heart-shaped altar, for the same amount of money, run by a large family of stylish Oaxacans, where the soft-spoken eldest sister, Alegria, offers to teach us, later in the week, her secret for stuffed squash blossoms with mole and for sopa Azteca. We are pleased with ourselves and with the idea of spending time with Alegria in her Oaxacan kitchen and with the sound of SO-pah Az-TEH-kah.
She works in the office as well as in the kitchen. She is beautiful and speaks English and wears fabulous clothes and dramatic jewelry. “Your necklace—where did you get it?” We must know her sources. “Where can we find blouses like yours?” Her smile reveals perfect teeth. We drape ourselves over Alegria’s counter as she draws us a map.
She has four sisters and two brothers. The youngest, Julio, and his gray-haired friend, Ernesto, through a series of elaborate but good-natured manipulations, become our guides for the day. We like Ernesto immediately—he laughs easily, his default expression is a crinkly-eyed smile—but Julio is nervous and twitchy and he asserts himself at odd moments. He makes strange faces and he’s bow-legged and he moves with loose, rubbery joints. We should be prepared to cut him lots of slack because there’s obviously some kind of issue here. In the back seat of Ernesto’s falling-apart, wood-grained station wagon, we try to appreciate Julio, to look beyond his odd and annoying assertions, but I don’t like Julio. If only he would stop turning around and nodding at us!
For the first night of El Día de los Muertos—the day dedicated to children who have died—Alegria’s family takes us in the family’s dust-covered van to a cemetery in a small village up the mountain. The sky feels heavy, as if it might rain, and the air is cold. When we get there, flower vendors line the dark streets. There are more mountains of marigolds, and a large, down-tempo, slightly out-of-tune multi-generational gathering of horn players and drummers. I wonder if little Jimmy from the bus station might be here but all I can see are dark silhouettes.
In this hallucination of a place I find myself sighing continuously. I watch people outside the cemetery file quietly past elaborate grave-sized, three-dimensional sand paintings and feel a slight unclenching of the fist in the center of my chest. When I look closer I see angels in the sand paintings. The Virgin Mary. Hearts with wings. The only light comes from a few flickering candles.
But once we step inside the cemetery walls we’re greeted with a surreal display of blazing light and color, candles everywhere, big and small, bright flowers and offerings covering almost every grave. Around certain gravestones families sit close together on lawn chairs, wrapped in blankets, silently sipping hot chocolate they’ve brought in thermoses. Other graves have a single visitor holding a solitary vigil. Every face is luminous. Quietly, as we stand there gaping, Alegria says, “They will stay here all the night, until when the sun come up.”
I feel a dreamy weightlessness. Across the valley, a loud flash of lightning followed by an enormous rumble of thunder, but there is no rain.
We each begin to pick our own way between the headstones and lawn chairs. On the graves that seem forgotten, we place a few flowers and a tiny candle we’ve brought along. The warm fog of our breath dissipates in the chilly air. Allison, too, dissolves into the distance. An old woman catches my eye and gestures toward a grave. She taps the center of her chest with a crooked forefinger. “Mi corazón,” she whispers. My heart.
The fist in my chest feels warm. I feel a spasm of…what? Joy?
My people at home, how I do love them…my handsome husband with his liquid dark hair, his open face, his open heart, his many quests and hungers, his nightly encounters with shadow and soul, our mutual fascination with the complex psychology of him; my tiny daughter with her beautiful belly-laugh, her passionate obsessions and unconquerable capacity for happiness; my friends who are content and also those who are troubled; my parents, whom I struggle, with increasing success, to forgive for mistakes both silly and severe; and Uncle Keith—dear Uncle Keith who should have lived his last months with us, not across town in a solitary apartment but in our home, in the room I selfishly appropriated for my office, or even in our living room. I should have tried harder to let go of the harsh words he used to describe the stupid thing I wrote. I should have cooked all his meals, and they should all have been comprised of red meat with buttery sauces and baked potatoes, and nothing green. I should have showered the old guy with chocolate chip cookies. And also, love.
I stop, drop my face into my hands and weep.
When I look up, wiping my eyes on my sleeve, I see the old woman still looking at me, her hand still on her heart. She nods. I nod.
Soon I’m smiling at everyone I see, every face illuminated by candles and loss. I stop wiping my tears and just let them run down my face.
“Can you believe this?” Allison says, emerging from the shadows behind me. Maybe she’s crying too; in the dark, I can’t tell, but probably she’s thinking about Julie.
I turn to embrace her. “Kleenex?” I whisper into her hair. “Did you bring any?”
The second day of El Día de los Muertos is for remembering adults who have died. In the afternoon, which is crisp and cloudless, Ernesto and Julio come for us again in the dilapidated fake-wood station wagon. On the sidewalk, Ernesto greets us as if we are old and dear friends.
“Amigos!” I say in reply.
“Olé!” Allison says, meaning, I think, hola. Hello.
Off they whisk us to visit ceramic artists who live in a string of tiny villages just outside Oaxaca. We see skeletal dogs looking itchy and near death. Roads aren’t paved; kitchen appliances sit directly on dirt floors. Handshakes are limp. Family members pretend not to notice us as they stare at black-and-white TVs with rabbit-ear antennae and extremely poor reception.
But the pottery is quirky and shockingly inexpensive. I find painted figurines of dark-haired ladies balancing poultry and watermelons and flocks of sheep and schools of fish on their heads—I love all of them; I buy all the ones Allison doesn’t grab first—we’re practically elbowing each other out of the way, until Allison moves on to bigger pieces I can’t afford.
On our way out of each artist’s home, Ernesto is presented with a plastic bag filled with little loaves of sweetened bread made especially for Day of the Dead, and ground chocolate squeezed into crude fingers, like crumbly homemade Tootsie Rolls. These treats, Ernesto tells us, are called “The Dead.” We accumulate plastic bags of The Dead until a swarm of boys surrounds Ernesto’s car at a stoplight in order to wash the bugs off his windshield before the light turns green. They are efficient and graceful, like dancers with squeegees. When Ernesto offers them a bag of The Dead, he tells them, twice, not to fight over it. They nod obediently as they gather around the bag.
We stop in a small town where an old woman with long braids squats over a fire on what we would consider the sidewalk outside a tiny market, twirling a wooden device in a small pot of milky chocolate until steam and foamy bubbles form. “This?” Ernesto points to the froth, his eyes twinkling. “It have magic.”
“What will happen?” I ask, raising a mug to my mouth.
With his chin, Ernesto tells me to go ahead, taste.
It is hot and creamy, with a hint of cinnamon. It tastes dark and foreign in a familiar way and fabulously delicious. The magic that happens, in this moment, with these people, in this strange place? I am suddenly in love with my life.
Ernesto drives us to visit a man who lives in a big new house. He uses all-natural dyes to paint fanciful wooden animals. His name is Jojobo and he collects small brown parasites from certain cactuses and grinds them into powder. To demonstrate, he pinches a bit of brownish dust from a Ziploc baggie into the middle of his palm and spits to make a paste. The paste is blood red. He adds powdered lime and the color changes from red to orange. He dips his finger into a baby food jar filled with honey and the paste becomes magenta. He adds some sort of powdered seed and the paste turns inky black. We are impressed. He smiles and ushers us into the little shop attached to his big house so we can buy, he hopes, large and expensive animal artifacts we don’t especially like. When he’s not looking, Allison whispers, “Ick,” and then she buys a gaudy wooden fish and I buy an imaginary animal with scales and ears. The colors of these creatures are unappealing to me, like beige with magenta, turquoise with orange. I’ll give mine to the nice woman at work who brought me a plastic Beefeater refrigerator magnet from the Tower of London.
On a dirt road in the third village we visit, a young man steps onto the road, waving us down. Ernesto, rolling down the window, tells us this is his eldest son. The two men speak. Ernesto turns to us in the back seat. “Is problemo,” he explains. His lips are twitching and he is blinking oddly and we finally realize he is trying very hard not to cry. “My son Augusto is drive to you now.”
Ernesto has learned one of his brothers, who has been in a local hospital for many weeks, has just died. We lean forward, grasping Ernesto’s hand, taking hold of his shoulder. We are so sorry. Yes, of course, of course. Is there anything we can do?
Julio, riding shotgun, bobs his head frenetically.
On the edge of the road in this dusty town, an old man in tire-soled sandals sleeps, curled up on a piece of cardboard.
Late in the afternoon Allison and I happen upon a parade in the oldest part of Oaxaca―more out-of-tune horn-players and wild-hot colors and heart-shaped garlands and costumes and photos of people gone but still remembered and cherished. Two tiny girls dressed in white, like angels or brides or spirits, carry a baby-sized cardboard coffin on their shoulders. These good people of Oaxaca have learned, one generation to the next, how to make this annual occasion of loss into celebration.
Allison stands like an island in the middle of the street, snapping pictures as the streaming crowd breaks into two rivulets on either side.
After dark, Alegria and her husband drive us forty minutes further up the mountain to a Zapotec village where crazed men with heavy, bell-covered costumes dance in a frightening, testosterone-fueled cacophony. One of them drags on a long leash a bewildered possum, which scurries this way and that, trying to avoid the stomping, frenzied feet. I turn away to watch the faces watching.
“This life is dreaming, yes?” the beautiful Alegria explains, turning to us in the back seat on our way back down the mountain. “Dying is, you wake up to what is real. Our loved ones, they are awaking on the other world. This is why we celebrate. You see? This is why, por Los Días de los Muertos, we try not to have the sadness.”
I don’t completely buy this, and I know Allison doesn’t, but because Alegria is so beautiful, I smile and nod.
Staring out the window into darkness, I think about my kitchen and my cookbooks. I imagine returning home to the various sources of my sadness, to new New Yorkers appearing every Friday in the mailbox, to my new miracle mattress. I think about curling up under down bedding to hear Dan’s CPAP machine shhhhh-ing as he sleeps.
Between Allison and my other Jewish friends, all the Yiddish my beloved stepdad taught me, my comfort with kreplach, and my fondness for smoked whitefish, I’ve been named an honorary Jew, and I wear that honor with pride. I’ve been to more than a few seders and a lot of Hanukkah gatherings and a large number of bar mitzvahs and a few Jewish funerals, but the truth is, instead of feeling like this is what we do, it feels more like what they do. I don’t have a “this is what we do.” Neither does Dan, which is why Uncle Keith is still sitting in his plastic box at the foot of the stairs. This is a problem. We need to fix it.
Even though there are only four ingredients in Oaxacan chocolate―cocoa beans, almonds, cinnamon, and sugar―every family has its own recipe to take to the neighborhood grinding man. Alegria’s family prefers more bitter, less sweet. I like it that way, too.
Before heading out for one of our final meals in Oaxaca, I grab Allison and hold her face in my hands. “Listen,” I say. “Could you give me a chance, please, before you rush ahead with your credit card? I want to get you something special down here to say thank you, but you keep—”
She wraps her arms around me for a long minute. “Write me a story,” she says into my ear.
It will be almost a year before my husband, daughter, and I finally accompany Uncle Keith on a pilgrimage to Catalina Island, where, for fifty summers, he taught Boy Scouts the art of canoeing. On a windy day in autumn, at the far end of a small cove, Dan will perch precariously on a jagged rock. With resolve and an element of grimness, he will upend the black plastic receptacle and slide its contents into the sea. There will be an odd moment of foaming before the blue-green water clears.
We will toss the plastic receptacle into a garbage can on our way back to the ferry.
While Allison enjoys an afternoon siesta in Alegria’s lovely B&B, I finally set out in search of my molcajete. The sky is, again, dark with rain clouds. I pass a dusty schoolyard with uniformed students running, screaming, laughing—the sound is the same in every language. I make my way along the uneven sidewalk, coming upon an elderly couple sitting silently on a high stone step in front of an open door.
“Buenas tardes,” I say, stepping around them into the street. An immediate crash of thunder follows a sudden flash of lightning.
The old woman, her hair in thin braids pinned atop her head, watches me without expression. The old man looks up to the sky and a raindrop splashes off his cheek. He smiles to reveal dark spaces where once there were teeth.
In a small grocery store on the way to thezócalo, I find a molcajete exactly the right size. I spend a long time selecting a pestle—called, the young proprietress tells me, a tejolote—that feels very nice and substantial in my hand. I put the two together, the bowl and the pestle, and try to decide if I need the little cleaning brush—la escobeta—she’s demonstrating for me. I heft all three in both hands, trying to decide. They’re actually quite heavy.
Ridiculously heavy, in fact.
I can get a perfectly good one at home. Why don’t I do that?
During the cooking lesson on our final morning in Oaxaca, I’m happy to discover that although her kitchen has far fewer tools than mine, Alegria’s knives are sharp. What I’m really excited about, though, is finally getting to experience her mole. She has made hers the day before, and when she takes the heavy pot from the refrigerator and removes the lid, I see and smell a pungent paste, thick, red, almost black. She ladles some into a smaller pot and thins it with chicken broth. I watch it begin to simmer, like lava, in slowly bursting bubbles. The flavor, when I dip my pinky in and bring it to my mouth, is hard to describe. It’s bottomless. Mysterious. Delicious.
I close my eyes.
“Bitter, sour, hot, smoky and sweet,” Alegria says when I open my eyes. She passes me her long-handled spoon to stir. “In mole, you taste it all.”