Who Lives. Who Dies. Who Tells Your Story

What do the hit musical “Hamilton,” the 2016 Presidential election, a 154-year old cemetery and a downtown Los Angeles Día De Los Muertos altars and art exhibition have in common?

You might have to take a bit of leap with me on this one, but I’ve been making connections for some time now. If I can keep my thread from unraveling perhaps my riddle will make sense.

Although every word in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” is essential to the whole,  the final ensemble piece, “Who Lives. Who Dies. Who Tells Your Story” chokes me up. Every time.

An earlier refrain, “History Has Its Eyes On You,” moves to the end with George Washington and company, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Anjelica Schuyler, and Eliza Schuyler Hamilton reflecting on how history will remember and record their lives. Their story.

The “lump in the throat” response is partially due to consideration of our current place in time and history. Not just the current “mess” in Washington (heaven help us!) but I also hear a challenge gently lobbed to each of us. Who writes OUR story?

Hang on! We’re now leaving Los Angeles and headed to Northern California.

On November 9, 2016, one day following the Presidential election, I was visiting my son and daughter-in-law in Oakland, California.

My son picked me up at the Amtrak station followed by the challenge of weaving home through throngs of angry protestors and police barricades, and by the next morning dozens of businesses in one Oakland district sported the window placard “Not My President.”

I did my best to be somewhat circumspect and offer at least the potential for some perspective (to my kids as well as myself) as we headed to one of our favorite places to walk– the beautiful dog-friendly Mountain View Cemetery. A cemetery walk is a quiet place to clear your head.

Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who also designed New York City’s Central Park, the panoramic views include a distant fog shrouded San Francisco Bay.

The cemetery is a tourist draw in part because of its beauty, but also due to the many ornate crypts in tribute to the wealthy notables of early San Francisco, including founders in California business and government.

Known as “Millionaire’s Row,” wealthy industrialists J.A. Folger (coffee) and Domingo Ghirardelli (chocolate) are buried alongside the Crocker family (railroad magnates) and Lewis Bradbury, a gold-mining millionaire who owned the Tajo Mine in Mexico, and later became a real estate developer.

The first mayors of San Francisco and governors of California are buried in the same cemetery with pioneers who traveled from the eastern parts of the country to follow promises of gold.

The lessons offered seemed clear to me.

Many powerful men with oversized egos are buried in Mountain View Cemetery. And many of them made their fortunes exploiting immigrants and foreign workers.

But death is the great equalizer! During the entire long walk I didn’t hear one word of pompous boasting!

Next stop…back to Los Angeles.

When my friend Andra Watkins visited at the end of October we went to downtown/Grand Park to view the community altars and commissioned works of art created to honor deceased loved ones. Día De Los Muertos, Day of the Dead, is widely celebrated in Southern California.

Floating floral altar offerings featured the iconic image of the Lady of the Dead/Catrina placed on a decorated floating vessel filled with marigold offerings, paying artistic homage to Mexico City’s Xochimilco.

Altar in tribute to Natalie Wood

Included were tributes to men and women from all walks of life. Elementary school children contributed items commemorating family members, a pet adoption agency drew attention to animal rescue, and a nearby altar to AIDS victims, with photos and short bios recalling lost friends and loved ones, created a somber place of remembrance.

These lovely memorials told stories of everyday men and women, most without a recognizable name, but having lived life well enough to be lovingly missed, but kept close by those who hold their memory.

Daily we hear stories of disintegrating reputations. I can’t even begin to relate to the stories I read and hear, but they remind me that each of us is writing our own story. And what follows after we’re gone is the question of how will we be remembered. Who will tell our story? And what story?

And with that, we’ve come full circle and back to Hamilton. 

If you’re able to see the musical, DO!

If that’s not possible, listen to the cast recording. Trust me. It’s more than an American story. From wherever you call home, I think you’ll be inspired.