drive-by reminders of love

by rebecca on June 23, 2012

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Roadside altars catch my eye and I wonder, “Have people always done this?” It’s like seeing pregnant people everywhere once you get the two lines on your test stick. “Where were all these pregnant people yesterday?”

The altar is in my rear view mirror, but I am curious and I turn the car around. My Keds sneaker leaves a divot in the dusty red desert. The silence of the sunset is complete. Do I belong here? Are people allowed?

But something beckons forward motion, inviting me into an intimacy that is not mine. The altar is covered with flowers, obviously newly laid. Underneath is a layer of life, a story unfolding about a person I’ve never met. There is a box with dried beans and stones and a strand of beads.

Digging deep in beans was what the preschoolers loved to do at Jarrow Montessori School where I worked during college. There was a basket, just inside the front door that housed lima, navy and black beans as well as tin measuring cups and a chipped china teapot. The children loved to pour back and forth with their chunky hands, or simply bury their knuckles in the sound and texture of a basket of beans.

It sounds like wind and river on the drive to and from my home. I pass a cross that has no adornment. It is merely two sticks nailed together at the center and yet I see it and wonder, who is remembering love with that marker? Someone lived, was loved and is now gone.

These markers of lives washed away exist everywhere. Walking the beach in Alaska to gaze at rocks, I came upon an altar to a young boy. His baseball cap and catcher’s mitt were there, housing the sand of the shoreline. There was also a Butterfinger wrapper, tucked neatly under his photo.

Candy bars or snacks of any kind are the highlight of every little league game. Parks in cities are filled with players and parents gathered round a dirt mound circled in green to watch strikes and balls along with the occasional hit. We all cheer as some children whack one long or point and clutch at our hearts because some are still more interested in picking dandelions. No matter how the game went, a nine-year-old with chocolate at the corner of the mouth feeds us all.

A long afternoon hike with my late cousin’s husband caused us to want a snack. At the convenience store where we stopped, I reached for a Sweet Nut Roll because it has just enough peanuts to justify the sweet. “Jude would choose that too,” said my dear cousin’s husband. In his voice was the longing of a man who simply wanted to share a bite with the salty sweet girl of his dreams one more time.

The clouds were dreamy the day I stopped at an altar located at the base of a mountain and knelt to find a hammer laying amid the flowers and stone markers. When he took anatomy, my carpenter-turned-scientist husband had no trouble dissecting the heart or lungs of his cadaver. But when it came to the hand he paused. “He has the hands of a working man,” David said, “I can see, when I look at his hand, that he spent many days of his life holding a tool.”

The things we touch are tiny talismans of love that go into the world and announce who we are.

I am a writer and a note-taker. Just looking at my colored pencils brings me pleasure. My daughter, who is a vegetarian, has a huge collection of stuffed animals she rescued from her brother who is a hunter. On his wall hangs a bow. He fills our freezer.

When the idea of altared spaces came to me it was because I believe that what we touch tells our story, a story we sometimes don’t even know we own.

But a mother finds these stories when she aches for a child who died suddenly. That is why, in this desert earth I see the white sandal that has filled with red dust. There is someone who noticed where her daughter walked and the path she took. The shoe is precious because of the life that walked within it.

I long to find those altared spaces before we die. What are the objects that give our life meaning? What is the thing that, in someone else’s hands, still speaks our name?

Do you notice roadside altars? What would symbolize your life? What is the snack that will cause someone to taste you after you’re gone?

I’m linking up with Heather today at the EO for her project Just Write. Come over and take a look at all the fabulous stories people are sharing.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Pam B June 23, 2012 at 2:39 pm

Rebecca, this has touched me deeply. I’ve traveled and worked throughout Africa and Asia and seen many “altared” spaces and now have a wonderful evocative name for what I’ve seen. I love the serendipity of the blog world where one discovery leads to many more and my gratitude today is having found my way to your work. Namaste.


Heather June 23, 2012 at 8:32 pm

It’s not that I love THAT you make me think, it’s more than that. I love HOW you make me think. Sometimes I picture you as a graceful and gentle professor of writing, in front of a chalkboard, nudging people to SEE, to just really SEE.

I notice the altars all the time. I think about these things and I get sad for the people who miss the people they symbolize. And for sure, people that knew me would never eat or see Peeps without thinking of me 🙂


Yvette Francino June 25, 2012 at 4:10 am

I’ve always loved your idea of honoring roadside altars… A definite example of an “altared space” if there every was one! They are beautiful reminders of loved ones and the fragility of life.

Roadside altars remind me of my brother’s death and the many lessons I learned through that grief. Though I don’t know the families of those honored, I still feel this sense of understanding and compassion for them.


suzicate June 25, 2012 at 2:55 pm

These roadside altars make me incredibly melancholy, inquisitive, and reflective.
“The things we touch are tiny talismans of love that go into the world and announce who we are.” – you state this so beautifully! This gives me much to think about…there are certain objects and actions of my world that do not exist without a thought of a person or memory…sometimes we never know what we leave behind…and like you said we often don’t even know our own story, or perhaps the impact of our story.
Thank you so much for this post. As always, you touch me deeply.


Stacia September 11, 2012 at 9:06 pm

I still love sticking my hand in a bowl full of dry beans. And those rainsticks that make that wonderful noise. Sigh.

There’s an altar to someone at an intersection I pass through most days. There’s a teddy bear and a wreath that’s withered in the sun. I always wonder who it’s for and how it came to be that someone’s life ended right there on that corner at such an ordinary-seeming red light.


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