In the month of November, 520 people died of COVID-19 in Ontario, Canada.
One of them was my Tia Delia.
This is not a story about her passing. This is a story about her living. About the ways she lived, and will always, in me.
Keele and Eglinton
My father immigrated from Ecuador in 1969. He said goodbye to nine siblings, a widowed mother, and dozens of other family members in search of new opportunities in Canada. With him he brought a few words of English, a couple of hundred dollars in savings, a deep well of courage, and the suitcase in his hands.
Seven years later, my tia (aunt) was our only family member to ever follow. They both ended up settled in Toronto but only my dad went on to have children.
My Tia Delia’s presence is a constant fixture of my childhood memories.
There she is giving me and my brothers candies that she brought us back from a trip home to Ecuador. That’s her teaching us how to play card games like roba montón and quinze in Spanish. I can close my eyes and see her waving goodbye to me from the big picture window at the end of the hallway in her five story walk up apartment building at Keele and Eglinton like it was yesterday. I never wanted to leave. She made it easier with this goodbye ritual.
My tia was a huge part of my connection to my Ecuadorian culture. She is the reason I know how to make Pristiños and tortillas de papa, traditional Ecuadorian foods. Up until the pandemic lockdown when I was cut off from visiting her in her long-term care home she was the only person I still spoke to in (my broken) Spanish.
Of course, my dad also plays a major role in my cultural connection. However, my tia held onto language and traditions in ways he couldn’t as a dad to three Canadian-born children and husband to my Canadian-born mom.
Of all the Ecuadorian traditions I’m familiar with, el Año Viejo is one of my favourites. It involves the ritual of burning the “Old Year” at midnight on New Year’s Eve. In the days leading up to it, the streets of many Ecuadorian cities and towns are filled with small and large Año Viejos (“Old Year” dolls) made of papier-mâché and other materials.
My family and I have never burned an Año Viejo here in Canada but I’ve taken part twice while visiting family in Ecuador. Those memories are woven with great care into the fabric of my identity as an Ecuadorian. The burning of the old to release and let go. The creation of space into which to invite hope and renewal.
We need ritual. It connects us to our people, and to ourselves.
There is such a thing as bad ritual, of course. When it’s forced, or forces you to give up a part of who you are, it can be negative.
At its best, though, ritual holds us in our goodbyes and ushers us into joy as we stand in the doorways of new beginnings.
To help stop the spread of COVID-19, millions of people around the world have agreed to miss out on important traditions and rituals in 2020.
I deeply appreciate these cancelations. As someone who has worked for fifteen years in the health sector, as someone who has sobbed uncontrollably at not having been able to be present with my tia in her passing, and as someone who understands deeply just how important ritual is to us as humans: you have my deep thanks.
As a grieving niece who has not been able to gather with my family to honour my tia’s passing: you also have my worry. These cancelations save lives; and, we need ritual.
I find hope in the creativity of those trying to embrace the pandemic as an invitation to reimagine tradition and ritual. Those who ask themselves, “how might we find new ways to collectively (but distantly) release and renew?”
I’ve witnessed Passover dinners shared over video instead of a communal table. I’ve learned of in-person workplace holiday traditions replaced by decorating-at-a-distance contests with employers sending team members personal gingerbread making kits. I was delighted to receive an invite to my first ever online New Year’s Eve celebration this week.
How have you and your communities embraced creativity in your call to tradition and ritual?
Inspired by the ritual of Año Viejo, New Year’s as a time of release and renewal is deeply important to me. This year, the call to mark it, to create rituals that will help me to make ashes of my grief and draw me closer to my roots, is stronger than ever.
One of the ways I plan to bring creativity to this call is by hosting this workshop on January 2nd. If virtual gathering is available to you I’d love for you to join me so we can reflect and renew together.