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Dia de los Muertos: homemade sugar skulls & an ofrenda for Marcia

One of the marigold-heavy ofrendas on display in Mexico City

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) was always one of my favorite holidays during my time living in Mexico. The elaborate, colorful ofrendas (altars)… the well-dressed Catrina statues the tasty pan de muertothe fascinating traditions at the cemetaries… It was so interesting to spend two years in a culture that not only felt comfortable talking about death, but actually celebrated it.  I shared several photos from one year’s festivities around Mexico City in this post, and I’ve definitely missed all the rituals the last two years back here in the US.

My mom humoring me by eating at a taco street vendor in our hometown back in Sept 2009. :)

But this year’s Dia de los Muertos holds even more meaning for me than any I experienced in Mexico.  It falls on November 2nd, just two days before the anniversary of my mom’s death last year.  She passed away on a chilly fall day in Grand Island, Nebraska after a year and a half of battling lung cancer. We often joked together that she would have lived a more devil-may-care lifestyle if she’d known that was coming; a stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis after never even having smoked a cigarette seemed a bit crap.

I’ve been thinking for a while about what to do in her honor as the calendar creeps up on one whole year that she’s been gone. One of my friends does an extravagant, multi-course dinner every year in the theme of her home state to honor the memory of the restaurant owner who taught her the key tenets of Midwestern cooking– dairy, meat, and booze. I love that idea, but I wasn’t sure I’d make it through a reprise of the last meal Mom & I cooked together without getting a little weepsy this year.

Visiting the Dia de los Muertos displays in Coyoacan with my mom in October 2009.

Luckily, the traditions surrounding Dia de los Muertos offered the perfect solution, along with perfect timing. In fact, Marcia’s last trip abroad was to visit us in DF during October 2009, so she got to see all of the ceremony firsthand & loved it! I decided to assemble my own ofrenda to celebrate her, led by my friend Lesley’s great how-to guide.  I was buoyed by discovering that friend Ross had a whole garden full of marigolds to share, the flower always seen adorning altars in Mexico.  And we already had the iconic Catrina and Catrin statues, purchased with my Mom’s guidance at the Coyoacan DDLM market.

Tracking down calaveras de azucar proved to be a challenge in the DC area, but I came across an extensive website — www.mexicansugarskull.com — where I was able to buy all the accoutrements to make my own sugar skulls at home. I was slightly afraid this would turn into an arts-and-crafts disaster, but Angela’s site did a pretty good sales job, claiming “even second graders” can do it. :)  And finally, I was able to special-order orange blossom water (a common pan de muerto ingredient) from the Italian Store in my neighborhood for a mere $2.99.

Making the Sugar Skulls

Early last week I started work on the long pole in the tent: the sugar skulls. I started with a five-pounds-of-sugar test run, carefully heeding the dire warnings on the website (Don’t make them on a rainy day! Sugar hates humidity! Don’t use crappy meringue powder!). I opted for the “Oaxacan Medium Skull” mold from the various options available, which I liked because it was very 3-D (you make the front & back and then adhere them together with frosting) but wasn’t so big that you have to scoop out the insides to get it to dry properly. The process was surprisingly quick– just mash sugar into the plastic mold, scrape off the back with a flat edge, and flip it onto a piece of cardboard.

Halfway through my five pounds of sugar skull-making run! The mixture of sugar, meringue powder & water should feel like beach sand.

They’re supposed to dry for 12 hours. Because I’m anal, I gave the 14 skulls a few days to relax on a card table set up in our living room.  But during that time, I accidentally knocked one skull-half onto the ground, and amazingly it did not break! After that litmus test, I felt confident enough to email a few friends to see if they might be interested in joining me to decorate the skulls. I still hedged my bets, though, promising a big batch of chili to eat in case this project was an unmitigated disaster. :)

On Friday night, I made another five pounds worth of skulls, even though it had rained during the day and weather.com claimed 97% humidity at 9AM. I flipped our A/C on in the morning, and the skulls turned out fine. I whipped up a couple batches of royal icing around noon on Sunday, and began assembling the skull halves together– this was probably the most tedious part of the process. Their royal icing recipe dries crazy-fast, so at least there were no worries with things slipping around.

Rows of assembled sugar skulls, awaiting their time in the makeup chair...

Bright and festive icing, all ready to decorate some skulls!

That evening, a few folks came over and we dined on a new chili recipe John had tested out (verdict: tasty but futzy, as I guess one should expect when one is making one’s own chili powder & tripling a recipe). Then, we plopped the piles of neon royal icing I’d made into the icing bags, complete with zip ties.

Jenny and I awkwardly fill up the fancy icing bags. Normally I am a big proponent of ziplocs or baggies for dispensing frosting, but I have to say, these things were worth the $4 I spent.

We gathered everyone around the table with their blank skulls, and set to work!

Silence fell over the room as everyone focused intently on their designs...

We found that Leah's pecan pie helped provide the energy needed for this project... Also note the piles of colorful foil & sequins/confetti at the ready, and toothpicks came in handy as well.

For a group consisting largely of engineers, diplomats, architects, and lawyers, I was quite impressed with the level of creativity displayed in the end results:

A lovely array of calaveras courtesy our artistic friends! Marcia's is in the middle of the front row-- often Mexicans inscribe the name of the deceased on the skull's forehead.

We sent most of the skulls home with their creators, but a few stayed behind to grace our ofrenda. Mexicans believe that the souls of the dead come back & visit their loved ones during Dia de los Muertos, so the ofrenda is the offering to the deceased. The skulls joined a few photos of Marcia, candles (to help light the way for the spirits), a good bottle of red wine (things the person liked to eat/drink), a glass of water and a pile of salt (to quench the thirst of souls after their long trip back), pan de muerto (for nourishment), marigolds (which represent the passing nature of life), her Golden Bear necklace (favorite items the person liked to wear), and a Swedish dala horse in honor of her Swedish heritage. Lots of these items also symbolize the four elements of nature- wind, water, earth and fire, like the breezy papel picados that represent the wind.

UPDATE— I came across one DDLM-related saying today after I posted this that I’d not heard before but really liked. “Ya que el camino de regreso al mundo de los vivos no debe ser resbaladizo por las lágrimas.”  Translated, “The path back to the world of the living must not be made slippery by tears.” Great summary of the Mexican attitude towards celebrating the lives of those who have gone before us, rather than focusing on our sadness.

Our first ofrenda! My mom also helped me pick out the papel picados on the wall during our trip to Mercardo Jamaica in DF a few years back. I am amazed they are still (mostly) in one piece!

And a candlelit ofrenda view, including the pan de muerto I'd made the night before.

I had made vastly more sugar skulls then we ended up decorating (apparently not everyone has my perfectionist tendencies of needing multiple tries to hone my skull-decorating skills), so I whipped out a couple more after everyone left. One for my Grandma Arline, and one for John’s Uncle Brian.

The other family sugar skulls I made.

I debated for a while as to whether dogs deserved their own sugar skulls, but ultimately decided I had to draw the line somewhere. If our old beagle Roscoe and terrier Dave each got one, then what about Sophie the guinea pig? Or those fish we had for a while? The barn cats out at Grandma Dorothy’s farm?  There are limits, people.

As we cleaned up after the festivities on Sunday night, I gave John a big hug. “Thanks for being so supportive and not making me feel like a crazy person for wanting to do all of this,” I told him. “It’s just the kind of thing Marcia would have liked,” he replied, “Frenzied house-cleaning before having company over, friends, laughter, good food, red wine, and a project!” :)

It’s going to be a tough November 4th this year for me, my dad, and my brother, as well as for lots of her close friends & family. I just hope she knows how much we all miss her.

The Carmanns, all dressed up with somewhere to go. :)

Love you, Mom

Happy Holidays from Midwesterner in Virginia

A belated Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays to all from me & John here in Arlington, Virginia!  Thanks so much for continuing to visit this blog & offer your comments. I love hearing from everyone who has Mexico questions, anecdotes, & tips to share.

We interspersed some Mexico into 2011’s Annual Baking of the Cranberry Almond Coffee Cakes.  This is a tradition my mom Marcia started many moons ago (i.e. bake as many cakes as your largest bowl size permits– you will alway be batter-mixing-space limited– and then give them away to a neighbor or two + whoever crosses your path in the day or two after baking).  Since Marcia is no longer with us to celebrate this year (and to remind me that I forgot to put any almonds on the aptly-named coffee cakes BEFORE they went into the oven), I whipped them up on my own with some help from John + brother Tim.

This seemed like a good occasion to break out the Rompope that I spotted at a grocery store in Nebraska & dangerously transported back to DC in my checked luggage.  We discovered this egg nog-like liqueur in Mexico, where we heard it was created by nuns in a convent in Puebla.  So, we took to calling it nun nog.

Cranberry-Almond Coffee Cakes & Rompope....a winning combo. Note evocative nun imagery.

The coffee cakes turned out great, despite their addition of almonds post-baking.  And I offered up a toast to Marcia, who I know would have enjoyed sipping a glass of nun nog with me on a Friday afternoon.  Love you, Mom.  I hope any nuns hanging out where you are give you a sip of their stash.

Life in a hospital for 7 days: not as glamorous as Grey’s Anatomy depicts

As I alluded to in my last post, I’ve been back from Mexico in Nebraska for the last week. Unfortunately it hasn’t just been all fun and games of monitoring crime in Omaha (though God knows it’s not for lack of news).

I’ve spent the several days at the University of Nebraska Medical Center here in Omaha, hanging out with my mom, Marcia. Marcia’s had a rough week, to say the least. After a couple months of having weird fevers/pneumonia/pains in her chest/zillions of tests, she came to UNMC for a biopsy to suss out what was going on with some suspicious lymph nodes in her chest. Just doing this biopsy involved collapsing one of her lungs, so it was no small task.

This lovely array of flowers & friendly animals certainly helped to speed Mom along the road to recovery!

To make a long story short, it turns out she has stage 3 squamous cell lung cancer. This was not the news we were hoping for, particularly since she has never smoked a cigarette in her life (p.s. God: not fair). But we are ready to wrestle it into submission!! And we are feeling optimistic– during the biopsy/surgery, they hacked out all of the evil cancery-bits that they observed. Of course, this included the two lower lobes of her right lung, some lymph nodes, and a little of the exterior of her esophagus… But like I have always said, two whole lungs are just taking up excess space that could better be used for storing things like jello. Or tapioca pudding (her current favorite item on the glamorous hospital food room service menu).

The doctors indicated the final margins were all clear, meaning that all the visible cancerous areas are gone. The top remaining concern is whether there are any additional evil secret lymph nodes lurking around. So, the current thought process is some chemo/radiation action for around 3-4 months. Luckily Mom should be able to do this back in our hometown of Grand Island, which will be a lot more convenient than driving the 2.5 hours to Omaha on a regular basis. She’ll wait another 3-4 weeks to start, however, because they want her to be healed up & strengthened from the super-invasive surgery as much as possible. She’s making great progress– down to one chest drainage tube & no IVs as of today!

Needless to say, we’ve been looking for humor wherever we can while hanging around the hospital. Here are my personal favorites thus far:

I saw this sign the day I arrived. I don't know exactly what happens at this event, but I am ok with not being invited.

Given my previous post, I was relieved to see that guns are *not allowed* in the hospital.

I have also been excited about the chance to work on my medical Spanish. (I brought my Dad to the "Bodies Revealed" exhibit in Mexico City the other week, where only upon arriving did it strike me how I should have reviewed body part names in Spanish before attending...)

I brought a wee Frida Kahlo mirror as a gift for mom, largely because it was one of the few gift-like things I had lying around the house when I decided to fly back to Nebraska the next morning. :)

The Frida mirror has come in handy as a tool for Mom to visually stalk her telemetry monitor, which the nurses turned away to try & get her to stop obsessing over the stats. (typical math teacher)

We were quite jealous of Mom's elegant meal options. She simply *insists* on sparkling laxatives, never still.

We have been pleasantly surprised by the tasty ethnic dining options around UNMC in Omaha-- Mother India and Gerda's German Restaurant were both awesome. I saw this Aug-toberfest announcement @ Gerda's and had to laugh at the 6:45-7:15PM timeline for dinner shown on the flyer. 30 minutes for dinner?? That would *NEVER* fly in Mexico!! :)

Also falling into the "panicked last-minute gift" category was this ear-of-corn thong. The corn thong seemed like an appropriate solution for Nebraskans, and a good way to spice things up once Mom & Dad get back home. 😉 My mother & I have been having an ongoing battle of me putting it on display & her hiding it from visiting surgeons each day.

I finally convinced my dad to model the corn thong, but he decided to go with a "Uni-corn" look... My mom had to hide her face in shame behind her new heart pillow. :)

Probably the scariest part of the week was when an elderly female clown stopped by. Luckily, Mom feigned sleep so the clown didn't stay to chat. She just dropped off this sticker instead. I felt like the clown might have missed the memo on which floor was pediatrics...

Marcia is hoping to escape the hospital this Saturday if she can get rid of this chest tube tomorrow.  If any readers are so inspired– any cards, witty commentary, and/or photos of cute dogs (Mom’s favorite) are welcomed & appreciated!! (Let me know if you need an address!) Mom will have a challenging few months ahead, but we have total confidence that she will get through it with the support of all our amazing friends & family.  Thanks to everyone for all thoughts & prayers sent our way. For more info or to leave a message for Marcia directly, visit http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/marciacarmann.

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