October 2010

Kites in GuatemalaGo Fly a Kite

As a kid, I always liked Halloween. I loved running from door to door dressed as my favorite hero [the Lone Ranger] as the neighbors dumped handfuls of candy into my pillow case. As I admired my loot of Pop Corn Balls, Hershey Bars, Milky Ways, Tootsie Roll Pops and Cracker Jack, I didn't know that Halloween originated in 5th-century Celtic Ireland to mark the end of summer; wonder what treats those kids got. I heard some ‘church people’ poohoo Halloween as a pagan ritual, I just say "loosen up" and "have a little fun".

Later, I learned the relationship between Halloween [all holy’s eve] and commemorating the dead, I liked the ‘quick and the dead’ connection. One Halloween I visited the Guatemalan village of Santiago Sacatepequez to witness some world famous kite flying.  Seems the villagers spend months making elaborate colorful kites to fly on the ‘day of the dead’.  These kites were made of hand painted paper strips glued to bamboo frames; they often reached 15 feet across.  Prayers and notes to departed loved ones were written on the kite and notes to ancestors were tied to the kite string [actually a bull rope].  

Around noon, teams of kite flyers assembled at the village cemetery waiting for a favorable breeze to lift their celestial messengers.  The cemetery was crowded with villagers decorating graves with yellow and gold marigold petals, painting tombs in bright pastels, sharing a picnic, burning incense, reading the Bible, offering prayers and telling stories about their loved ones.  When the afternoon breeze came down through the valley, the kites started to lift and the blue white sky was quickly speckled with dozens of swaying multicolored rings.  I joined a team, tied my note to the rope and thought about my ancestors.  As the kite danced in the wind, the kite flyers felt the greetings of their ancestors being telegraphed down the rope tether. 

An old Mayan grandmother, Bible in hand, told me, “We celebrate their lives, not their deaths; we remember them in this beautiful way. One of the things I learned from my mother is that the worst death of all is to be forgotten.” Her family’s kite was a way to learn about her ancestors. “I learned all about my family through building a kite, writing prayers, remembering stories,” She told me “It connects the past with the present and the future. How comforting to remember your family members even though they’ve been gone, then for you to be remembered, even after death to be loved and cherished.” 

Kites in GuatemalaI guess my appreciation for Halloween, kite messengers and the ‘quick and the dead’, comes from my hobby of genealogy.  My hobby has led me to do some calculations I might otherwise never have made, math not being my strong suit.  The results make for an interesting bit of trivia.

No matter how extended our families, most people tend to think back no more than three generations or so, try it. That would push us back to the late 1800’s. Most could not name their great-great-grandparents [about the year 1830]; even fewer could go beyond that.

Obviously, we all have two parents, and four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on, each earlier generation [30 years] doubling. The sum of that doubling, however, quickly becomes staggering and we begin to get an idea just how big our family tree is.  Nine generations back, for example, we have 512 great-grandparents, and that’s only in the late 1600’s.  A simple formula for the number of ancestors in any generation is 2n = x where n is the number of generations back and x equals the number of ancestors in that generation. At this rate we hit 4,096 by the twelfth generation which corresponds to about the year 1590.  At the beginning of the 13th century we have 16,777,216 ancestors in the 24th  generation, comfortably more than the combined populations of the cities of Boston, New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Las Vegas and the state of Maryland.  And it goes’ on and on, do the math.

That’s a lot of people to send massages to and to keep in my prayers except collectively, which I do. I imagine meeting them all in the ‘world to come’.  Heaven promises to be quite a party with numbers like these representing only a fraction of the guest list since it doesn’t include siblings of these ancestors, cousins and such.  The family tree is actually a beautiful forest. However unfathomably long eternity is, it will apparently begin with a very, very long bout of hugging, kissing and introductions followed by lots and lots of questions.

I won’t be going around the neighborhood with my pillowcase this Halloween.  I put aside my mask and ivory gripped six shooters long ago.  I do have a colorful new kite though and I think I’ll go over to the hill at Millennium Park to have a talk with my ancestors.  May their memory be eternal. 

Kites in Guatemala

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