A friend recommended this altar and I intend to tend it until June 21st–the first day of summer and also my mothers birthday.
I lit three pink candles tonight to celebrate my birthday with my grandmother.
Minnie Emma Pigg 1909-1991.
Nearly twenty-four years ago that she died and this week I am assembling an altar for her.
I have her jewelry box. A cheap cardboard box filled with plastic and glass beads strung together on wire, small objects saved for the memory they held or their own simple oddness or both. I used to buy her rose shaped lapel pins and locket necklaces at thrift stores for a dollar when I was out shopping for my punk clothes as a disaffected youth. There are several of these finds in the box, like they were her favorite things.
And maybe they were.
My mother had a picture of Minnie Emma framed for me; a black and white portrait of my grandmother with her hair done. She’s wearing her best cloth and faux fur coat. I have this coat, still. I don’t wear it because the seams tear as it shifts.
The box and the picture are the main parts of the altar. I have a hand crocheted scarf and a small ceramic figurine of a sitting bear that belonged to her. The bear is something I’ve carried with me for most of two decades to keep me safe.
“Look how good it’s working,” She says as I place it.
The altar is a place to remember ourselves in relation to the person we honor. We remember ourselves in the moments we spent with them. The altar space is for remembering, for listening, for making a focus on tradition. In tradition we remember our ancestors daily and celebrate them often. In tradition we experience connection and communication.
I made a pot roast the day I set-up her altar. I cooked it all day just like she used to do. I’d look forward to it all day as I went in and out playing around her house. I remember that she smiled at me a lot back then.
Today, she gave me a advice about the roast. The altar is for this conversation. To listen and to open up to what she is telling me. In this case, she eliminated an ingredient from the way I cook the pot roast. I’ll never use it again, she’s still teaching me to cook, to mind traditions that keep me grounded in myself. My grandmother is still teaching if I am still listening.
I have rose oil, so I sprinkle that. I have some sachets she would like, I put those on the altar and sprinkle these with rose oil. She smiles, I see it. I see the quality of it, the her of her smile. This is what the altar does. It brings us into contact.
I continue to work on the altar, I bring a pink tree flower and put it in a bottle I like. “I’m actually not sure what this one is,” I tell her. Later someone hands me a treat—something I never get for myself. I start to decline and my grandmother says: those were a favorite when you were a kid. I’d forgotten it all together; Saturday mornings with her—yes, I remembered, Scooby Doo and too many sweets.
I use my own jewelry. A necklace that features a pistol and a bracelet lined with silver bullets. I remember her so well with her gun. Protecting the hen house from snakes and her kitchen from intruders.
She was featured in a local headline once: “Shotgun Packing Mama” it read. She’d chased off yet another would be burgler with her .22. Eventually it was that kind of danger that caused her to rent the place and move to her brother’s property. She was a local celebrity with her gun, though her smart mouth came in handy too. That last part she just said to me now.
That’s the point and the power of the altar for an ancestor. It’s an invitation to communicate in subtle awareness with that history as it lives through us.
I remember a dream I had about my grandmother when I was very small—we were playing hide and seek and I was so happy. Even when I was very small I dreamed of my grandmother’s love and remember it felt very wonderful and fun and I was excited to have her for my grandmother.
Tend to your altar for as long as you need or want. Add memories written down or photographs or objects. Take things away and rearrange. Tend it. Spend time with your altar. Light candles and write letters and talk it out. Just talk it out. Do what you need to do, but tend the altar. Add and remove and rearrange objects. Light candles and incense, talk and tend.
You may wish to offer ancestors their favorite vices or comforts: their crossword puzzles and glasses of sherry, gardenia bath powders or BBQ pork rinds. Feed them if you like. If you do this, it is a best idea to bury the food offerings before they go bad. And no nibbling! If the truffle is for your ancestor then—well, you wouldn’t have taken it out of their mouth in life, so don’t do it at their altar either.
Most of all—listen. Listen to their voice in your life. What did they teach you, give you? How do you act with and from this person everyday? What can they see in you that you don’t see in yourself? What mystery can they solve for you?
Write down traditions you learned from this person and make them a seamless part of your life, of your thoughts. Use the altar to honor and to open communication. How we live shows our reverence for where we have been.
We are our ancestors.