Swinging by for a visit on the Day of the Dead

Photo of Day of the Dead Altar, Marge & Keith KnowlesFeeling nostalgic these days. I do every fall as Dia de los Muertos rolls around.

I love the Day of the Dead. I like knowing that as the days grow shorter, the veil between the living & the dead, the here & the there, grows thinner. I’m comforted by feeling my loved ones within arm’s reach.

Dia de los Muertos is not a time to be sad, but a time to celebrate. Remember & celebrate the people with whom we’ve had the honor of traveling, if only for a short time. Every year, as November 2 rolls around, someone from my circle of ancestors steps out & reminds me they’re still with me.

This year, it’s my father, Keith Knowles. 1940-2005.

My dad & I had a complicated relationship. For years I struggled to win his approval. Then for years, I condemned his approval as the mark of hell. When I finally grew up (& tucked a few years of therapy under my belt), I came to see my dad as a man with his own journey.

We both worked hard to find common ground & appreciate each other, differences, short-comings & disappointments, all. Considering the variety of ways my dad & I banged heads with one another, it would have been easy to walk away from such a tense, sometimes explosive, relationship. But we didn’t. We never gave up on one another.

Photo Keith & Anita Knowles, 1969I’ve come to appreciate that at the end of the day, I’m a lot like my dad. I have him to thank for my integrity, my intellectual curiosity, my willingness to ask the difficult questions. He taught me how to tell a good story, & to look a person in the eye when you shake a hand, make a promise.

My partner has Keith to thank for my unwavering tenacity & my unique ability to divide the world into black & white, although I think she’d likely use different terminology in describing these traits.

I miss my dad. I’d give a lot to share one more meal, one more conversation with him. I’d tell him how glad I am that he was my father.

One tradition of the Day of the Dead that I find particularly moving is creating an altar in honor of loved ones. We decorate the altar with candles, marigolds, & photos. Then we place objects on the altar that remind us of the people who have passed &, some believe, help the spirits find their way back for a visit.

I’ve set out a bag of peanuts in their shells for my dad.

Keith Knowles Pic crop

On this Dia de los Muertos, who will you be missing, honoring? If you create an altar, what items do you choose to welcome back those loved ones? And when they swing by for a visit, what one thing do you say to them?



  1. indy
    Nov 2, 2013

    I love your ritual and you have inspired me to plan ahead for next year and do something similar. So Thank You!
    Interestingly, when I thought about what items I could put on my altar, I realized that sadly I have very little from my father and his parents, except photos and his Marine dress uniform (story too long for here). Memories will have to suffice. By my Grandparents on my Mom’s side left me some wonderful items that I treasure. Everyday I use my Grandmother’s oak Shaker style china hutch and from my Grandfather I have a smooth rock he gave me that looks like a bird’s egg and a four-leaf clover (a real one!). He could walk out in the yard and find one almost every time! But more importantly, both my Grandmothers taught me to cook and can food…my Grandfathers taught me about gardening and nature, the names of animals, flowers and trees. I can only hope I leave behind such a legacy…

    • anita
      Nov 3, 2013

      How cool, Indy! Your items & the memories they invoke are wonderful. I’m feeling a short story with your grandfather & his 4-leaf clovers. 😉 Your post rings so thick with connections to the Midwest. Reminds me of my dad & his love for the land.

      Another piece of the altar that I enjoy is putting out food my loved ones enjoyed as a welcome gift. Some believe the spirits will use the food offerings to sustain their journeys back. I’ve put out a Reeses peanut butter cup for my grandmother, black-eyed peas for my Pa-pa, & a pack of Marlboro’s for my uncle (only because I’m convinced he’s beyond the risks of smoking!). I even put a can of dog food out for my very large pack of dogs waiting on the other side. Remembering what they loved, recalling the meals we had together, even calling my mom to get suggestions & share memories, are powerful moments.

      I imagine your ancestors are already applauding the legacy you have created for you & your family. As do I.

  2. Leslie Nack
    Nov 3, 2013

    Thought provoking article, Anita. Thanks for making me stop and think about this. I feel my father around me at times, (he died when I was 19 and that’s been a lot of years ago now), but I never thought about summoning him or even being open to him on this holiday and creating an altar of things to invite him. It’s interesting to think about… Thanks.

    • anita
      Nov 4, 2013

      Thanks for reading, Leslie. Creating the altar definitely helps me re-connect with the memories of my dad. So does attending the festivities of Dia de los Muertos & sharing the holiday with so many other people. We went to festivities at Rose Hills Cemetery in Whittier & there were TONS of people there hanging out around the graves of loved ones, having picnics, decorating altars, swapping memories. Sometimes it’s hard for me not to get completely overwhelmed with sadness every fall, but the joy & celebration at these festivals helps a lot. Reminds me those who pass over never really leave us. Consider yourself invited to join us next year. Put it on your calendar!

  3. Sandy Knowles
    Nov 3, 2013

    I miss him, too, Anita. Wish I had the words to express my feelings like you do.

    • anita
      Nov 4, 2013

      I hope you can see our altar someday, Mom. It’s actually very moving to collect the memories, candles, photos & honor objects all in one place. And thanks for always helping me figure out what to put out for each person!

  4. Betsy Marro
    Nov 3, 2013

    Anita, this was wonderful and though provoking. I am reading it after the Day of the Dead has passed but I am thinking about this now. There is something so right about consciously inviting the memories we have of those who died and all that comes with them. Usually, I just find myself ambushed. I think, if I were to make an altar today, it would be for my grandmother, Katie. I miss her hands, her laugh, her deep voice and the days we shared when she spoke to me as a grownup way before I was one.

    • anita
      Nov 4, 2013

      What wonderful memories, Betsy. I would love to read a longer description of your grandmother someday. I imagine your gift for words would do her great honor. The altar definitely helps me contain some of the grief. Like you, the memories can overwhelm me, as can the reality of how many people (& canine buddies) I’ve lost in 4 decades. Thanks for reading!

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