Missing the Dead

The Day of the Dead is here. Maria dal Vago Sartori, my Italian grandmother, walks along the Malecon with me. She enters my meditation like a feather. As these holy days of November honoring the Dance of Death take place around me, my grandmother’s presence grows.

She died in her home in 1958 when I was eleven. It was my turn to stay the night with her. She was standing in the kitchen after supper, then  suddenly she was lying on top of her low bed, fully dressed, asking me to ‘ring the bell’. The big red round button on her bedroom wall that would buzz in my parents’ bedroom next door. The button that had never been pushed before. My older sister came. Mom and Dad were out for the evening at a play in the next town. Grandma asked us to call the doctor. While my sister was on the wall phone in the hall, I knelt next to the bed to tell Grandma that Doctor Miller would come. She couldn’t seem to hear me. I put my mouth near her ear to say it. She looked in my eyes and said, No, call the priest.

I watched Grandma but her eyes were closed. I couldn’t tell when she left us. She was alive at the beginning of the evening and then she was dead. I put my hand on Grandma’s foot and it was cold. I tried to understand what death was. I went to a cold place, everything suspended. Trying to grasp what had happened and I was just eleven,  the only one of us nine kids who took Italian lessons from her. She was the only one who saw me as a person separate from the brood, the swarm, the pack, the crowd. As an individual. As me.

Then my father was in the room. From the doorway I saw him kneel by the bed and cry. It shocked me, to see him like that, for once powerless. He couldn’t understand the dance of death either, it seemed.

That night, I was in my own bedroom next door on the second floor, looking over to Grandma’s house, telling myself over and over: She was alive four hours ago, and now she isn’t. In the morning I did the same thing. She was alive yesterday morning. Now she isn’t. Telling it to myself, trying to understand it. I did this every day for many many months. I looked over to Grandma’s house before I went to sleep, telling it to myself. Three weeks ago she was alive. Two months ago she was alive

I was eleven, I thought everything could be understood if I tried hard enough. I don’t know when I stopped the ritual. It never resolved into the understanding I so desperately longed for. I simply gave up. I couldn’t intellectualize the loss of my Grandma, the loss of the only adult who saw me. Maybe my ritual of reaching to understand the mystery of death was a way of hiding the loss from my conscious awareness. I must have missed Grandma, those months of being eleven after she died. My parents weren’t the kind to speak of emotional things. Not an affectionate kind of family, either. My parents never talked to us about Grandma’s death or what it was like for my sister and me. I never got to express my terrible bewilderment. We went on.

photography by Susa SilvemarieI live in Mexico now and the Day of the Dead brings it all back. On my Dia de Los Muertos altar, to honor and give thanks for this ancestor, I have placed the only thing I have of Maria dal Vago Sartori: a Milan postcard she sent me from a trip she took the year she died. The ink is faded but you can still see how elegant the penmanship is. And it is addressed to me. Not to “the children”, but to me, in my name. She called me Susanna. She noticed me. She saw who I was. Fifty-nine years later, I finally let myself miss her.

I can’t visit her at the cemetery in Wisconsin, as families here visit with their Gone-Befores on the Day of the Dead. I think she is visiting me instead. As I walk the Malecon in the dawn. As I meditate. In my dreams. She was born in Acquaviva delle Fonti near Bari, on the Adriatic Sea in the Puglia region of Italy. She grew up in Udine, near Venice. It’s time for me to explore those Italian towns, to go to her beginnings. Time now, as I myself come to the age she was when she died. High time to explore the places— and the feelings. Time, finally, to miss my Grandma.