When my siblings and I were young, my parents frequently took us to the cemetery to visit the grave of my mother's mother. I never knew her, but I knew how much my mother and Pappap had loved her. I could see how sad it made my mother each time we went. As a small child, I felt bad for my mother, but it had nothing to do with me. I did not imagine myself one day standing there as she did, at the place where we had cast her underground, lost and weeping.
One may visit a cemetery at any time, but certain proper times impel one's presence graveside: the days of a loved one's birth and death; Christmas and Easter; Memorial Day. Unhappily for me, my mother's birth and death dates are in December and February. The six-hour drive to the cemetery at these times is a dicey proposition.
This past Sunday, February 15th, was the second anniversary of my mother's death. We are in the middle of an arctic freeze, with frequent bouts of snow, freezing rain, 40 mph winds, and sub-zero wind chills. With the anniversary occurring on a Sunday, it seemed attendance at Mass would be a good form of remembrance. I would recite the familiar prayers, and at the end of the service, I would light a candle for mom - near a statue of Mary, if possible.
My mother, a devout Catholic, was very devoted to the rosary and the Virgin Mary. She was always "bending Mary's ear" about a cause in need of Mary's succor, whether it be restoration of the health of a sick grandchild or a conversion of non-recyclers to less earth-ruinous ways of living. It grieved my mother deeply that I had fallen away from church-going. For my part I found it simultaneously amusing, annoying, and touching to learn she had taken to lighting three candles whenever she went to a church. Whether at weekly Mass at her home church, or in other churches while traveling or visiting, the votive candles were regularly lit for my father, my brother, and me. My father was dead, so his candle was to help him get out of purgatory and into heaven. My brother was confined to a nursing home ever since a botched surgery at age 17, so his candle was for his health (and a miracle, if God would so please). My candle was to bring me back to the faith.
When I was very young, I believed that the lighting of votive candles had a magic power. The very candle itself sent up a mystic message via flame and smoke straight to God, who would see the burning candle and think favorably upon its associated prayer. You didn't burn a candle for trivial things, like winning a ballgame, or evil things, like causing harm to one's enemy. You burned them to ask for intercession in someone's misery. Heal the sick and suffering. Lift the souls in Purgatory into Heaven. Guide the lost sheep back into the fold. That sort of thing.
I don't know if my mother believed literally in the power of the candles but she did believe that in some way lighting one focused and amplified her prayer. She always, if possible, chose to light her candles on the side of the church where the statue of Mary was. Mary had been a mother. Mary understood the sufferings and special sorrows of a mother's heart. Mary was the right one to chat with, when you wanted something important relayed to God, to make sure He would get it. You know, really get it.
People without religious faith can still benefit from ritual. Since I have not yet managed to create my own set of deeply meaningful memorial rituals, and couldn't make it to the cemetery, I thought it was worth giving the Mass and the votive candle a chance.
I found a local Catholic church that seemed perfect. Catholic churches usually bear a saint's name. My hometown church was St. Ignatius of Antioch. St. Peter, St. Michael the Archangel, St Patrick's are all common; there are a lot of Sacred Hearts and Holy Family parishes, too. But the one I found was called Queen of Peace. It was a church dedicated to Mary! It was a good sign! I planned to go.
Then the butt-chappingly cold weather got even more butt-chapping, and it snowed again, and the dire newscasters warned against going out lest ye be frostbitten and die, and the winds blew a steeple off a church in a town nearby.
I stayed home.
But I didn't feel good about it.
My dear friend and neighbor then suggested, why not burn a Yahrzeit candle at home? Better than trundling off to church to light a candle I wouldn't see again after I left the building anyway! Great idea!
Scrounging around the house, I could not find any nice pillar candles, and for sure nothing that would burn 24 hours. What I did have, though, were "purification candles". These I had found and brought home with me during one of the marathon sessions of cleaning out mom's house. Purification candles are blessed (and sometimes lit) on Candlemas, the 40th day after Christmas. On that day Mary took Jesus to be presented at the temple (and to be purified for her birth-giving uncleanliness, bla bla, patriarchal religion, bla bla). All good Catholics keep some blessed purification candles on hand at home for when the priest comes by to bless and anoint a dying person. Blessed candles can be lit when someone is sick, in a sort of bedside vigil and prayer for returned health. Or, as in olden days, they can be lit as protection against the (literal) wolves in the forest. They are quite versatile.
I had a candle, noow I needed a holder. DIYers on the internet suggested using a small jar filled with sand. No appropriate-sized jar was to be found, but I did have the perfect mug - a plain white mug my father used to drink his coffee. (My younger sister remembers once as she watched him drink it black, before going out on midnight shift at the coal mine, asking him if he didn't want milk. "The first cup's purely medicinal" came the reply from a man who could not truly be called "awake" at that point.)
Candle, mug - but I had no sand. Searching my cupboard I ran across some years-out-of-date Minute Tapioca. Kinda sandy-like texture. I lit the candle, dripped some wax in the bottom of the mug, and held the candle in the wax till it was steady. Then I filled the cup halfway with Minute Tapioca around the candle, to catch the dripping wax. For some decoration, I taped the remains of a refrigerator magnet (sans magnet) on the side of the mug. It was a miniature straw hat with pink roses I had bought for my mother when we went to a ramp festival in western Pennsylvania. She had liked the little hat, and pink roses were her favorite. It was perfect.
Makeshift Yahrzeit Candle
It was early afternoon when I lit the candle (not sundown, as one more properly does). The ersatz Yahrzeit burned quite a long time. I carried it around the house with me wherever I went. I felt very happy about it. At one point while walking up the stairs and shielding the flame, I though of my mother very intensely. It felt to my non-spiritual self like her spirit was with me in some sense.
Later on I noticed that the flame was now level with the rim of the cup. What was of course obvious from the beginning of this candle venture now hit me with all the force of a grief born anew: the flame would burn out. Stricken, I turned to Mr. Z with this obvious and tragic observation, and I wept.
We talked for a little while about my mother and her life, how much we loved her, how much we miss her, and the examples of her life we wish to embrace. It was good to have those moments to feel and share the sadness, and to speak affectionately of mom.
The candle lasted awhile longer. I kept it near me. Eventually the little hat fell off the side of the cup, and though I tried once or twice to press it back on its sticky tape, it just wouldn't stay. Soon the flame was down to a mere wisp which licked at the wax that had earlier dripped onto the Minute Tapioca. As this wax burned and flared, some of the tapioca burned, too, giving off a scent of burnt marshmallow, and leaving a burnt-marshmallow-type ring around the guttering flame.
Little flame, with burnt tapioca
The aroma reminded me of family camping trips when we were all young, roasting marshmallows around the campfire, mom at the wooden picnic table laying out the graham crackers and Hershey's squares in readiness for our burnt sugar fluff sagging off our campfire forks.
Even in those last few moments when the little flame was almost nothing to be seen, it gave me something.
And then it just...went out.
I looked at the clock and by pure accident, the flame had gone out at just about the time in early evening when mom drew her last breath.