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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Smart

Je me souviens…I Remember



November 1st. The day when, in a non-plague year, people are waking up from the (perhaps excesses of a) night of celebrating the delicious ghoulishness of Halloween (in the U.S., at least). This year, we’re maybe just groggy from that extra hour of sleep. Who cares if it’s going to be dark just after noon from now on? I got a solid 8 hours last night!


In much of ancient Christian culture — and before that, the pagan rituals that undergird so much of the church calendar— the beginning of November is a sacred time of connection to those who have left us.


All Saints’ Day. All Souls’ Day. Allerheiligen. Toussaint. Samhain.


Samhain was, according to Wikipedia [narrator: listen, Wikipedia is a super useful start point for unofficial research, like “who was that actor in that one movie that came out that one year..?”], a “liminal or threshold festival, when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld thinned..” It was a time when those on the other side “...could more easily come into our world.” (1)


That sounds haunting (in a good way) and mournful, but it’s got legs. My friend DB talked about Samhain a few days back. She described how during that time, the light and the dark, the living and the dead, are believed to be closest to each other. That imagery has stayed with me.


In Germany, Allerheiligen is a day to commemorate saints and martyrs. That was a lot of Big Church language that didn’t (and, to be brutally honest, still doesn’t) speak to me. What does resonate with me is what I saw in practice, as the people in my village took time on November 1st to bring flowers to the graves of their loved ones, and to light a candle. The candle symbolized the eternal light of the soul. It also lit a path for spirits to find their way to their places of eternal rest.(2) It was solemn and beautiful and respectful. It was a communication. It was also ...peaceful.


Toussaint is celebrated similarly, in French-speaking countries. I witnessed the “this world” side of this beautiful tradition thanks to a wonderfully creative French teacher at our school a few years ago. He set up a section of the hallway outside the language classrooms and brought in mums, the traditional flowers that people bring to gravesites in France and Germany (and probably many other countries). He arranged the mums - a riot of brilliant orange and red and yellow blooms— on the floor in front of a wide column. Above the flowers, he created a memorial. Students took strips of paper and wrote on them, “Je me souviens de.... “ and then the name of someone important to them who had passed away. “I remember...”


As the day progressed, each class put up their commemorations. To grandparents. Friends. Heroes. Parents. Siblings. The wall filled up as young earnest hearts shared their respect and grief and love.


It took my breath away.


That year, I taught in a classroom in a different hallway than the other language teachers. My room was around the corner from the Toussaint memorial. Every time I had to walk to the teachers’ center, or go to lunch, or the copier, or to speak with another teacher, I passed the memorial. I never once passed it without reading some of the commemorations. I never once didn’t cry.


Not once.


November 1st is meaningful to me on a personal level. A long time ago, in Massachusetts, a skinny red headed guy from south Boston married a beautiful French Canadian girl from northern Mass on the first of November. They were kids. She was 19 and he was 23. They looked terrified, and in love, and so, so young. Together, they raised a family, moved back and forth to three countries on the Army’s Frequent Flyer Program, made friends, kept friends, loved each other. They built a world, these two. My mom and dad.


My dad died about five years ago. He took up so much room, good room, and then he was gone. He was a young man - still only 67. The hole he left in the world is huge and ragged and full of hearts with loving memories of Hank Burke. It’s a testament to the life he lived, which was — despite his humble origins, his many heartbreaks, his health that betrayed him over and over — also full of triumph, of overcoming, of creating community, of love. He lived a good life.


So.


Je me souviens de mon père.


Je t’aime, my little daddio.


(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samhain

(2) https://www.feiertage-deutschland.de/allerheiligen/

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