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Getting Ready for the Day of the Dead

My haunted neighborhood is stirring a new custom into our melting pot
       My haunted neighborhood — another story you’ll read in this Halloween Bay Weekly — has a new citizen. Ana Dorantes earns that title not by virtue of age; our youngest citizen is her son Leo Dorantes Groves, who’s a little runabout well past infancy. Ana is our newest United States citizen, sworn in this very month in the celebratory culmination of eight years of naturalization.
       She and her all-American family are just the refreshment our old neighborhood needs. Full of life, they’ve made us a family again. They’ve also opened up our minds and our world, as Ana infuses our way of life with the customs of her country of birth, Mexico. 
      Particularly useful in our haunted neighborhood is the Mexican custom of keeping on very good terms with the dead. You do that by making ofrendas, as Ana is teaching us. That seems to me a wise custom to adopt when you live in a neighborhood where many of the citizens are ghosts.
       To me, ofrendas look like a combination of altar and well-set table. Honor and a feast you can dig into would do for me — if I were a ghost — just what Ana’s husband Wes explains your ofrenda wants: “to be so attractive that the spirit can’t resist coming to it.”
       An ofrenda starts, Ana says, with a tablecloth of papel picado, cut tissue paper, in colors symbolic of hope or mourning. Rising in tiers from there are all the things a spirit would most crave, starting with photos to call the right spirit — or spirits. Newly made spirits — people lost in the past year — claim pride of place, perhaps even their own ofrenda. I hope I’m right in thinking ofrendas can be shared without offense, for in my neighborhoods — both where I live and where I work at Bay Weekly — I have, at a minimum, four newly made spirits to honor this year. 
      Honoring them correctly takes flowers, whether live or paper, especially marigolds and their yellow and orange counterparts, as spirits are said to like the color, the scent and the fast-blooming and fading symbolism. Smells seem important to spirits, so you’ll want to burn incense for them, as well. 
       Several more elements are requisite: water for their journey, salt for seasoning and candles to light their path in their strange new world.
       From there, develop your ofrenda with things your spirit loves. So for my first Maryland friend, Sherryl Kirkpatrick, it will have to be something Parisian, to remind her of her favorite city. For Dr. Frank Gouin, the Bay Gardener, homegrown garlic will do fine — or a pretty little sack of his last favorite soil conditioner, Bloom. For my next-door haunt, the subject of this week’s story, a replica canoe and a tiny wood house. I’ll honor the newly departed Sonia Linebaugh, our old associate editor, with her book on Mother Meera — plus a copy of Bay Weekly.
      Next, your ofrenda wants food and drink. Good times may be scarce among the dead, so they depend on you to provide what they loved.
     If your ofrenda is authentic, it will need two more things. One is pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, a loaf or bun topped with skull and crossbones. The other is a sugar skull, or calaveras, to sweeten death. 
         Ana’s ofrendas are fresh reminders that our neighborhoods and nation bring all sorts of people together.
       I’ll think of that when I sweeten my ofrenda with Halloween candy — Milky Ways are supposedly Maryland’s favorite — rather than sugar skulls. When I open my door Halloween night, I’ll be prepared for ghosts and spirits as well as trick-or-treaters.
      To sweeten your holiday mood, keep reading for more spirited stories of haunted houses, ghost ships and terrifying spiders.