The days are getting shorter and darker. Leaves are falling, leaving skeleton trees, black and wet. Halloween has become quite a presence in the last few years here in Spain. The big kids come in all dressed up as ghosts and zombie to give out sweets in Clara’s infant’s room. The radio hosts joke about Spain’s zombie economy run by banker ghouls (really no joke there). Everyone has a Halloween party to go to. Jokes and commercialism aside, being on this side of the world gives the festival sense. The 31st of October heralds the oncoming of the night, the withering of things, the preparation for winter and of our own mortality.
The 1st of November is the Day of the Dead, or All Saints Day, which, unlike Halloween, has been celebrated here since the dawn of Christian times. It’s the day when you go to the cemetery to visit those who have passed on. Cemeteries in Andalusia are always white walled, out of town and flanked by Cypruses, so you can’t miss them. The cemetery in Seville is like another city, an airily beautiful and solemn necropolis, as the Romans called it, weighted with stories and local history, full of white mausoleums, walls with boxes and plastic flowers, crypts and headstones. I haven’t been there since we interred Javier’s grandmother many years ago –perhaps next year we’ll make the trip out there.
Javier’s mother dutifully made the trip despite her recently operated foot. She walked too far and now I have her swollen foot and ankle up on my knee and I’m giving it a gentle rub. You’ll need to sit still this afternoon with that foot up, I say. It’s very hard for this mother of six and grandmother of ten to sit still.
I get to thinking of the little trips I like to make when we come home to NZ. Out to the cemetery at Apiti is a constant, but the Thorndon and Karori cemeteries are due their visits too. My Step Grandmother always said Karori was far too cold and damp to be buried in. There she is, however, along with many generations of my mother’s family.
But it’s not just in cemeteries where we remember. We like to visit trees we’ve planted, drive down certain roads and stop in certain places for a cuppa. I like to crouch by the Rangitikei a while and throw some pebbles in. Or stop the car on the Desert Road to gaze about the volcanic plateau. In 2006 we carried water toSpain that we had collected from a certain stream on Taranaki. We’ve still got it, though I think it’s time to be sprinkled about and remember the loved ones we were with that day, some passed on, others with us still. I just haven’t been able to let it go yet.
In August this year while we were on our yearly escape from Andalusian heat, we visited some remote hill villages up north in the forested hill regions of Castílla y León. Coming from a river swim, we came into a village by chance and noticed the houses had large portraits of what appeared to be locals hung on the outside walls. The encaustic on scrap metal portraits had a dated look about them due to the sitters’ dress and the hanging of the portraits had it’s own special order, some hung by windows, some on odd walls. Stop the car!
I got out to investigate further and soon found the meaning of it all. One day back in 1967 a government photographer named Alejandro Martín Criado had come to the village to photograph all the villagers of age for their new ID cards – 388 people in all. Later the photos became part of an archive in his name. The Spanish artist Florencio Maíllo had come across the photo archive and put the proposal called “Retrata” (to make/take a portrait) forward to the local Council. His idea was to draw from the archive and situate the resulting painted portraits on the outside of the homes where the people had been living in 1967. All the paintings were then given to the descendants of the portrait sitters. In most cases, for the time being, the portraits were remaining on the walls of the village dwellings. I didn’t get a chance to walk further around the village due to the two tired children I had in the back of our car, so I will never know exactly how many works the artist made in his village wide installation.
I found the idea so simple, the works beautiful and refreshing. This was an act of creative generosity to enrich the village’s fabric of memory and sense of place. The project stayed with me all day.
I continued to ponder it into the evening while I sat in the village church where we were staying and stared at the family of bats nestled into the faded 500 year old painted wooden rafters high above my head. The rafters had been once covered in mystical beasts and flora, brightly painted in a style that had been brought to this region from Mesopotamia with Jewish and Muslim migrations. Once Islamic Spain had been conquered, and in order to show Spain’s loyalty to Christian Europe, conversions to Christianity were enforced on the Jewish and Muslim populations or expulsion ensued. Some of the converted had often made their way to remote hill villages to get away from the eyes of the Spanish Inquisition. Often the most pious crosses etched in the stone lintels of doorways belonged to the houses of the converted population. I thought of the Sabbath candles burning in secret behind shuttered windows and prayer mats hidden, traditional motifs in embroidery worn in secret acts of remembering.
Winter approaches. We look into the gathering night and remember. Clara and I collect yellow leaves in the park for a school project. They’re having a chestnut roasting party on Monday. I dig into the cupboard for blankets for the beds and put carpets down on the cold stone floors.
Images: Various works from “Retrata2/388” by Florencio Maíllo in the village ofMogarraz, Peñas de Francia in the Salamanca Region of Castílla y León, Spain.