Friday, June 10, 2011

Creative memorials in the Land of Enchantment

By S. Derrickson Moore
LAS CRUCES — A cozy group of stuffed animals lovingly nestled on a child’s grave. Crosses, creatively handcrafted out of everything from yucca branches to PVC pipe and weathered wood.
Colorful wreaths made out of red, white and blue silk flowers, positioned carefully on the grave of a soldier who died in World War II. A photograph and a frilly dress commemorating the tragically short life of a pretty young woman who was murdered in Juarez.
A descanso with flowers on the side of a busy street, where a promising teenager lost his life to a reckless driver. Ashes, scattered with a handful of rose petals, and prayers and a song for a dear friend, echoing on the banks of the Rio Grande.
An unexpected glimpse of pueblo mourners on horseback, gathered in a sacred circle in the mountains of ancient Acoma.
That’s just a small sampling of tender displays that have moved me while encountering memorial tributes here.
A sage once told me that the best way to get to know the corazon y alma (heart and soul) of a community is to walk through its cemeteries.
So that’s what I did, when I first moved to Las Cruces in the 1990s. I visited final resting grounds from Mesilla to the foothills of the Organs and the village of Tortugas.
I traced the history of famous figures and families who have buried their loved ones here for many generations, at the Masonic Cemetery on South Compress Road and San Albino Cemetery in Mesilla.
I visited artist John Meig’s backyard burial site for a beloved adopted son in San Patricio, a little community outside Ruidoso.
I found some of the most creative expressions of love and caring in the very heart of downtown Las Cruces, at St. Joseph Cemetery on Las Cruces Ave., near what native Las Crucens still call the “new” St. Genevieve’s Church.
The graves often tell a poignant tale themselves: dates on a gravestone testify about lives cut short ... in battle, in childbirth, in childhood. There are loving words, sometimes photos of the beloved, and statues of saints and angels.
Occasionally, you’ll find elaborate family compounds, sometimes with fences and landscaping; hardscaped perpetual monuments in the eternal mode of the great pyramids.
But it’s the more ephemeral tributes that speak to me: cards, notes, letters and fresh flowers, a small toy. Things that can travel with the wind, or meld into the earth with the coming of summer rains.
Things like the tiny origami birds in the Peace Crane Wall, the project of a Las Cruces couple, Tim Reed and Vickie Aldrich.
They were inspired by a memorial thousands of miles away. In 1955, moved by a Japanese legend of a recovery inspired by the creation of 1,000 paper cranes, people throughout Japan folded cranes for Sadako Sasaki, who was a toddler in a home about a mile from ground zero when the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Radiation and ensuing leukemia killed her on the threshold of her teens.
The Children’s Peace Monument in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park features a statue of Sadako holding a golden crane, and an inscription: “This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace in the world.”
Tim and Vickie decided to create a monument with an origami crane and a brief biography and photo, if available, of every U.S. service man and woman who dies in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I first met them when we were a few years into what has become the longest continued conflict in our nation’s history.
Since then, Vickie has taken the ever-growing memorial on a 2008 trip to Washington, D.C., and there have been displays of all or parts of the memorial at sites ranging from Día de los Muertos observances on the Mesilla Plaza to the Las Cruces Veterans Park.
“There were over 5,000 cranes when we updated it last year. We last set it up on April 9 near Johnson Park, by the Branigan Library,” she said.
Tim once told me he made it a point to really pay attention to each life sacrificed, as he folded every crane and searched online for photos and information about each person. And sometimes, even —or especially — after years of folding cranes, he cries, while memorializing people he has never met.
The truest, most enduring memorials live in our hearts and minds and souls, I believe.
But there is much to be said, too, for finite expressions in our material world which can inspire us to ponder the lives we live now and the ways we will be remembered.
And experiencing the creative, thoughtful, tenderly sacred ways we memorialize in the Land of Enchantment can make you feel good about living here and better, I think, about eventually heading for the hereafter yourself.

S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at; (575) 541-5450. To share comments, go to and click on Blogzone and Las Cruces Style.

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