The other day, I was feeling a little low. One of my children suggested I go out and buy myself a nice new skeleton. She was right; it would have cheered me up.
I love skeletons. Lots of people do, and why not? They grin so cheerfully, and they’re so accommodating: You can bend them and tote them around them and make them do whatever you want. This year I set up a skeleton climbing a ladder up the side of the house, and one lounging in a chair by the mailbox, waving to traffic. It’s amazing what you can make them do with zip ties.
The novelist Joyce Carol Oates made herself look a little silly on Twitter a few weeks ago, responding to a photo of a house similarly decorated for Halloween. She tweeted, “(you can always recognize a place in which no one is feeling much or any grief for a lost loved one & death, dying, & everyone you love decomposing to bones is just a joke).”
Several people hooted in response, “No one tell her about Mexico!” Other readers with a longer memory pointed out that Oates had in fact written a story based on the death of an actual specific human being, and when the friends of the dead man complained at her callous co-opting of his personal life, she was dismissive. And a few folks felt a moment of pity, pity for the poor old bat. Someone named “JustLuisa” said kindly, “My 5 am hot take is that people should be nice to Joyce Carol Oates about the skeleton thing. She’s a freakin’ octogenarian; why are we making fun of the old lady wrestling w skeleton thoughts.”
Why indeed. This year, when I hauled my plastic skeletons out of the attic, I had a bad time for a few minutes. They really weren’t funny, for a few minutes. What are you smiling about! Effing skeletons, what’s so funny? How many times had I pictured my own father and my own mother with their hollow eyes down in the ground, on their way to being just bones, of all things. You think you know these things, but it turns out you weren’t quite there yet. You believe in the resurrection of the body, but still. There is that time, under the ground. It’s a bad time.
“Nobody tell her about Mexico,” some people said. I have heard about some cultures, in Mexico and elsewhere, that not only celebrate and remember the dead, and skelly it up with sugar cookies and masks and paper banners, but they actually go and dig them up. They wait three years, or seven years, and they dig the corpses up, clean them off, dress them, and have a little party.
I wonder what that does to the living, knowing this day is coming. You wouldn’t be able to just walk away in a straight line, after somebody dies. You couldn’t just progress neatly through the stages of grief, getting further and further away from their death as the date wanes into the past. You couldn’t just say goodbye and have that be the end of it.
That’s a joke, of course. You can’t do that anyway, with or without the corpse party. Even if you go full-on American, and pump your loved one full of preservatives, seal them up in airtight caskets that look like tiny little posh hotel rooms, and expect them to stay there forever, there are no straight lines away from death. There’s a lot of staggering and slumping and backtracking involved, believe me. Look at poor Joyce, 83 years old and still struggling with skeletons, and it’s not because she hasn’t had a chance to think about it.
Every so often, I have the urge to write about my dead parents. I always wonder if I’m doing it too often, and I always wonder if what I’m doing is remembering them, or exploiting them. Is it for them, or for me? I pray for them, of course, but the writing is for me, assuredly. But for what purpose? Why am I dragging them out of the attic again? You look at the calendar, you see it’s the season for memento mori again, so you dig the old folks up, brush them off, and get 800 words out of it.
Not that my parents would mind. It doesn’t do them any harm. But I do try not to tote them around too much, or pose them in any ways that would be too foreign to who they were, as I knew them. Which is only as my parents, which is by no means all of who they were. And bones is not who they are now.
But still. I try not to make the zip ties too tight if I can help it, when I set them up for another pose. I can’t seem to help wrestling with skeletons every so often, but I try to be gentle. And I’m sure I’ll be back again, because there is not a straight line away from death.