Light One Candle

It’s darkening quickly here, the way it does in winter. All the lights are on. Since our wood stove won’t accommodate a log sized to the Jol (Yule) tradition, we get by on recycled slag glass fixtures, a string of penguin lights gifted by friends in the front window, and boudoir table lamps twinkling cheerfully through antique beaded shades.

And candles. So many candles…

Tonight we start up our annual family practice, adding a candle (sometimes two) each night throughout what began as a stark grieving practice but which has since warmed to bittersweet remembrance.

A file of wax cylinders stands at attention along the incomplete kitchen sill above our well-worn pine table. Only a couple are already labeled. Some few are mandatory, but for the most part we discuss one per night before agreeing to an appropriate reminiscence. Unanimous agreement is our standard. We light candles for our dear people, for certain special pets; sometimes even for a concept.

אֵל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים שׁוֹכֵן בַּמְּרוֹמִים, הַמְצֵא מְנוּחָה נְכוֹנָה עַל כַּנְפֵי הַשְּׁכִינָה בְּמַעֲלוֹת קְדוֹשִׁים וטְהוֹרִים כְּזוֹהַר הָרָקִיעַ מַזְהִירִים (נִשְׁמַת (פלוני בן פלוני ,שֶׁהָלַךְ לְעוֹלָמוֹ בַּעֲבוּר שֶׁנָדְבוּ צְדָקָה בְּעַד הַזְכָּרַת נִשְׁמָתוֹ .בְּגַן עֵדֶן תְּהֵא מְנוּחָתוֹ לָכֵן בַּעַל הָרַחֲמִים ,יַסְתִּירֵהוּ בְּסֵתֶר כְּנָפָיו לְעוֹלָמִים ,וְיִצְרֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמָתוֹ ה’ הוּא נַחֲלָתוֹ, וְיָנוּחַ ,בְּשָׁלוֹם עַל מִשְׁכָּבוֹ וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן

Last year, we lit one for motorcycling. Pretty Wife hasn’t hung up her helmet yet. She’s invested in the idea of being a grandparent who rides, an idea that I support (and once identified with), but which I can only applaud from the sidelines now. My body has taken too much damage ever to skillfully control a bike again. It took me a couple of angry years before I adjusted enough to light that wick, and I’d be lying if I told you that tiny, winking waxed cord burned the loss away. Acceptance isn’t my best trick, but it’s part of how we move along.

I’ve lit one in the past for a military-aged male whom I encountered when he was somewhere along his ambiguous transformation from boy to man, and squarely in the middle of a running street battle. I don’t know his name and never will. That candle is hard for me to label, and even harder to light. May his memory, tough though that is, be for a blessing.

There’s typically a candle set to light for Pretty Wife’s grandfather, a WWII sailor who ushered her into the delightful mysteries of properly stacking firewood, rowing dinghies, and allowing wild birds to settle warily into her palm. She doesn’t know the date of Allen’s Jahrzeit. She was just little then. Her family doesn’t mark these things; it isn’t their way, but it is ours.

Another military-aged male, young dumb and…well, you know the rest… don’t get no stinkin’ candle. Joshua, a little younger than our eldest and a little older than our son, continues to be responsible for the date on our eggnog party for mil-vets. That date remains unchanging in the annual optimism that he’ll swagger through our door once more, and if I ever have to kindle a Jahrzeit for him, it’ll gut me in ways I can’t yet imagine.

The final candle we light each year is to Flavia. Last year, her twin bore us a granddaughter who is loud and proud and beautiful, smart and increasingly mobile, and now just about twice as old as her aunt was on the day she died. Given that our ritual evolved out of a need to keep me from hiding under a bridge with a bottle every year near our birthdays, that last candle remains perennial. We always cap the lurching grief of this cycle with Flavia’s dear and difficult memory.

Then we throw a party.

Don’t Curse the Darkness, Light a Candle: the Bonnevilles

Three days after that ultimate Jahrzeit, I celebrate my birthday — and I mean celebrate it, the hell right out of it, all up and completely. The bonus round has been kind to me beyond all deserving, but only since I accepted my only useful takeaway from the sure knowledge that tomorrow is not promised to us: I take my joy where I find it. I try very hard to keep that promise I made to myself: to appreciate my friends and my dear ones and my damaged, beautiful life, because gratitude is a gift to oneself. In the purported words of King David of the Israelites, this is the day that the Lord hath made.

Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

That’s a trick I learned from, as much as from anyone, contemporary Israelis. On the 27th day of Nisan, every business and government agency in Israel closes its doors for Yom HaShoah. Traffic stops; driving is banned. The entire nation pauses to solemnly consider its losses during the Holocaust, the heroes and victims who lost their lives to Nazi genocide, and the defenders who gave up their lifeblood defending the nation of Israel. Horns blow across the country as every piece of worldly business gives way to quiet talks, Jahrzeits — so many Jahrzeits for a new and tiny nation — and picnics near the graves of fallen soldiers and terror victims. It proceeds much in the solemn manner of retreat on a U.S. military base, only instead of a few minutes of saluting time, it lasts for 24 hours. The experience gave me chills. The memory chills me still.

The following day is Independence Day, a celebration of wild abandon. The air hangs heavy with barbecue smoke. Bottles are passed from stranger to stranger until no one is a stranger anymore. Curvaceous Levantine babes, tightly wrapped in cleavage-sprouting party dresses, throw their dancing arms toward the night sky, capering in spiked pumps across the hoods of grid-blocked cars that didn’t make it home before the horns of Yom HaShoah. I was dragged into three parties that night, didn’t know a soul at any of them, and was welcomed like chosen family every time. In the midst of death, we were in life.

Still life with a young Tucker. Image courtesy of Roberta Mander Maghouin

I found two lessons in Israel, there at the crux between grief and glory. Primarily, life is short. We all know that, but when we swallow only that bitter lesson and ignore its juicy corollary, we lose the only bet that matters: if our dance is short, it should be sweet. A dragonfly, during a life spanning only the length of one Marine combat tour, fills its short, warm days with savage depredations, soaring acrobatic flight, and torpid, bejeweled sunbathing. The dragon of the air doesn’t miss a wingbeat, and neither should we.

Last month my stocking disgorged a special bottle, courtesy of Pretty Wife’s gracious and classy stepfather, Gary. It’s a fifth of Ardbeg’s lovely Corryvreckan, which hits a perfect “5” rating on the Whisky Exchange and thus rates well beyond my “occasional, non-serious tippler” budget. In hindsight, seems it was a good idea to build him that gate last summer.

Tonight, kicking off our seasonal cycle of memorial twinkling, we’re pellucidly aware that we don’t know when Gary might join that line of candles. Despite recent upgrades to his pacemaker, Gary’s heart remains a hand grenade in his chest. That reality has shadowed him for decades. We enjoy our time with him the way we enjoy it with anyone we particularly care about: with an edge to our joy derived from the certain knowledge that tomorrow is only a dream, never a promise. For years, Gary’s been my lead role model for appreciating the bonus round.

Household tradition dictates that the first candle in our progression be lit in memory of a sweet Great Dane named Tucker, the best dog I’ve ever met or loved and one who was too tender of heart and fragile of body to live long in this hard world. Tonight, I’ll raise a glass to his picture, to the mound out back where a maple tree grows, and to his beloved memory.


And it’ll be the good stuff.

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  1. Roberta Mander Maghouin says

    They forever live and flourish as long as we hold them in our hearts…

  2. Dennis Weatherly says

    The bonus round. I’ve never looked at my life that way but I think I should start now.

    I never know what I’m going to learn when I read your writing. Only that I will surely learn something worthwhile. Thank you.

  3. Ach, nooo, the Corry… a bit jealous I am, and yet very happy for the fine excellence of which you are partaking. A clean fresh explosion of smoke, like…


    Like a candle…

    I know one candle that you don’t have to light yet, for sure and for certain. Your writing is not just alive and kicking, it’s still kicking _ass_, mine in particular… it’s taken quite some minutes to put English around it. And G-d willing and schedules don’t f*** up, I intend to be there to help you celebrate that fact, and your continued existence as a huggable being… this year, and for as long as I can, some way, some how. Because you’re damn right. That’s something to celebrate the hell out of.

  4. Eddie Frowiss says

    You constantly amaze me with your ability to make my eyes well with tears.

  5. Thank you, as always, Jack.

    My own experiences during my 56 years have led me to believe that life is comprised of mostly suffering punctuated with occasional moments of joy and love and kindness.

    We would all do well to acknowledge and celebrate those moments as they are what gives us the strength, courage, love, and compassion to embrace not only the “Bonus Round” but every round.

    Your writing is a wonderful reminder of just that.

  6. Michael Pierce says

    Damn it, Jack! You keep making my monitor all blurry.

    If ever there were a place where I’d want to be represented by a candle…it’d be on your incomplete shelf.

    I love you man. You’re gonna have to share some of that Ardbeg though.

  7. To what everyone else has said, I’ll add you break my heart and then heal it.

    And- when you celebrate the hell right out of your birthday, consider playing a song by New Orleans’ own Galactic, with a guest vocal by the estimable Cyril Neville. “I’ll take the pain, turn it into something real.” Turn it up!

  8. the feast of the Annunciation.

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