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BURN ON, BRIEF CANDLE!
Wee Willie Winkie, Hamlet’s dad, the Bronte sisters, all would have benefitted from a candlestick with a protective backing like a hood against the draft, when they were forced to travel around the house in the dark, which was probably much of the time. Even to this day, I use such a “chamberstick”, as it’s called, to light the way if necessary. But mostly it’s kept stationary, next to my bed. I leave my traveling light to more reliable, battery-operated devices when the power goes out. But wax and wick, nestled against a portable fireproof shield do provide an effective and renewable (“gotta match?”) light source. And because it is shaped both like an early footlight and a holy shrine souvenir, it can shine quite efficiently into dark places.
When I was growing up, one of those places was the linen closet where, during a thunderstorm, you might stumble upon my mother, fingers in her ears, cowering against neatly folded terry cloth, the contents of a laundry basket clinging to her ankles. My candle exposed an ashen, Dante’s Inferno kind of face, trembling up at me. After I recovered from the heart stopping shock of finding a grown-up, hiding in the linen closet, I felt like I’d witnessed something I shouldn’t have; my mother so vulnerable and brittle – it was disconcerting. I’d just wanted a washcloth.
She was not known to be overly dramatic, unlike her daughters, so this must be something deep seeded. Why was she so unreasonably terrified? I later discovered a possible explanation. During electrical storms, my grandmother (Agnes the first) would make her three children – my mother (Agnes Two), Aunt Gerarda, and Uncle Grat, put on their rubber boots, gather around the dining room table, with their rosary beads and well-worn bibles, then lead them in fervent prayer. One imagines the jagged strobes of lightning and flickering candles distorting their stricken faces, each second counted, each bead squeezed, until the next apocalyptic crack of thunder. as they beseech our merciful lord- “don’t let us be taken by this storm, dear Jesus!”
I wonder why my mother didn’t sense the hooey in it all. She was smart, destined to be high school valedictorian and graduate from Smith College. Perhaps she was skeptical. But then years later, married to a non-Catholic, she conjured up the ways of her people, connecting to the life before she allied herself to my more devil-may-care father. His nonchalance about religion may have been a relief – but could have felt, at times, like a denial of her roots. Did she need to pay homage, just to keep up her end of the bargain? Her religion was important to her and a deal had been struck that the children would be brought up “RC”.
Because my father never succumbed to the fear mongering that the church instilled, my mother was pretty much alone in her devotion. The four of us grew up with a more casual approach to Catholicism, giving us license to mock it all, including the nuns we were forced to deal with at Sunday School. Today, I’d have more generosity and empathy towards these women, creating little back stories for their paths to the convent. But in those days, we were more cruel…and so were they. I savored my sisters’ dead-on impressions of the head priest, whom they’d dubbed “Pops Gallagher”, his thick Philly twang extolling the virtues of “our beyooteeful nuns who are so much more be-yooteeful than youuu…in your fancy Easter bonnets, painting your faces with lipstick and rooouge!”
And there they were, the chorus line of black hoods seated in the front pew, peeping out through wire spectacles, their squared-off veils and white wimples framing rapt faces the color of suet pudding, now smug with their newly proclaimed allure.
And then…someone quietly farted. “Pweee…”, Aggie imitated the sound onomatopoetically under her breath. Few things are worse than trying not to laugh in church. No amount of secret self-harm does the trick – fingernails dug into palms, arms pinched, eyes gouged, lips bitten until you taste blood. One’s face gets red and sweaty with the effort, you can’t breathe. Someone pokes you sharply between your twitching shoulder blades, which has the opposite effect and now you have no choice but to side-step parapalegically out of the pew, hoping your contorted face will be perceived as a seizure or woman’s troubles.
But even public shaming could not curb our “healthy skepticism” and I eagerly took on the ritual of Confession as my personal fish-in-a-barrel target. Once that little neon cross over the penitent’s door lights up green for “go”, you enter, kneel, and wait for the speakeasy hatch to slide open, which is your cue to begin. You start with the standard “Bless me father, for I have sinned”, jump right in with your first obfuscation – stating exactly how long it’s been since you last set foot in this creaking booth of atonement, the size of a port-a-potty, smelling of incense and stale breath, and something like beef stew. Anything over a couple months, you’re in trouble so, “Hey, long time no see!” doesn’t really work. Plus, you can’t exactly see the priest because he’s hidden behind a screen, revealing only a shadowy, outline, like a TV crime show witness, keeping it all very anonymous.
“Hello my name is Anne, and I’m a liar and a cheat.” “Hi Anne!”
Well, maybe not that kind of anonymous. After this rote introduction you proceed to enumerate your sins along with the number of times you performed them. Apparently, the devil really is in the details…of data entry. It’s a lot to conjure all these lists and numbers; Sister Fighting – three, Lord’s Name in Vain – two, Disobeying Parents – seven. You’d never admit to anything really egregious – “Impure Thoughts…five, Murder?…zero!”
I always managed to get through it all with the minimum penance, even coaching Julie, 6 years my senior, and arguably the most pious, due to her two-year stint with the nuns at Villa Victoria Academy in Trenton, NJ, on how to “spin” her overly long gap between confessions, which was causing her unnecessary angst. “Listen”, I said, “you say it’s been 2 weeks since your last confession and then you tack another lie onto the lie column. You told four – you say five…boom…forgiven!” I was skirting around the laws of the Catholic Church like Groucho Marx in a dress. Religion minus time equals comedy.
My mother’s family were all good Catholics so I’m pretty sure heaven would welcome them with open arms. My grandmother died before I was born, but according to my oldest sister (Agnes Three), she was wonderfully formidable, overbearing, but on your side – if you were her blood. She did lord it over her more complacent, non-blood, thank goodness, husband, Henry, whose name she shortened appropriately to “Hen”. Perhaps from the grave, Agnes One still held Agnes Two in her grip. The nurse who took care of our mother at the end, was a devout sort who assured us that “Mom” had truly accepted death – lock, stock and bible.” But I don’t buy it (although I did then, just to get through),. She was probably just as terrified as she’d been around that table, wearing galoshes and the weight of someone else’s fear.
But what exactly did my kind and law-abiding mother, who’d presided over many charities, think was awaiting her? Eternal damnation in the fires of hell? Really? Or maybe she was hoping, as some believe, that you are reunited with your loved ones in heaven. This idea alone may have been enough to give her the willies. Meeting both parents AND her beloved, only sister whom she’d lost at age 25…the anticipation might have been paralyzing. Any interruption of routine, and the elderly get nervous. And what if her in-laws were also there, on a cloud – the potter and the vaudevillian, who dared question the suitability of this Irish Catholic girl marrying their son. They had both died while my mother was still young and beautiful, so how would they see her now, wrinkled and suffering? The enormity of it all is too much. At some point, don’t you just want to shut it down, turn it off, fade to black? But, for the most part, we don’t get to say, “Cut! That’s a wrap!”, which is why we invented religion.
My dad, the heathen, died right before Christmas. I was living in New York City at the time and a few days earlier, before heading out to Pennsylvania to be with him and my family, I took the subway uptown to immerse myself in the lights and bustle of Fifth Avenue, before getting the train at Penn Station. Drinking in all the garishly cheerful, yet nonetheless dazzling store windows, I suddenly found myself standing in front of St Patrick’s cathedral. When we were kids, my mother used to drag us inside to light a candle during our end-of-summer spending spree on school clothes – perhaps as penance for all that rampant materialism (“Please God, make her buy me that purple suede coat with the gold buttons!”) The odors of wax and general holiness however, managed to obliterate the luscious new clothes smell and the lingering fug of grilled grease from our lunch at Hamburger Heaven. As my mother knelt in front of the candles, warming her hands in their light then burying her face in their warmth, we looked at her curiously like anthropologists, and waited for our turn with the long wooden match, mesmerized by its flame.
My father, who accompanied us to church only on holidays was, nonetheless, a fan of grandeur and impressive workmanship. So, I turned away from the dancing candy canes and nodding, animatronic Victorians, and walked through the huge copper fronted doors into a different kind of light show. Candles help, not so much to “rage against the dying of the light”, as to outsmart the dying of the light, illuminating the obscure, the shadowy, the private. They provide atmosphere and stoke the imagination. I thought of my chamberstick with its deep cobalt glaze, like a Maxfield Parrish evening sky. It had been so useful during my Nancy Drew phase, when I would draw the curtains in the living room and search for hidden clues in the secret compartments of my mother’s desk – Freudian, I know.
Now inside St. Patrick’s, my own face now warm from the rows and rows of melting prayers, flickering in their little glass holders, I drop a quarter in the slot, light a candle for my father, weep deeply into the cavernous solemnity, and walk out. It all took less than 10 minutes. And then there, across the street next to the Sabrett’s guy with the buck teeth, was a vendor selling black bow ties studded with tiny flashing red lights. Clearly it was a sign – my dad winking and grinning at me, as I walk down the aisle at my first communion, as if to say “This may be a lot of malarkey, but don’t you look cunnin’ in that dress!” I paid my six dollars for the twinkling tie and thus armed, began the journey back home, hoping to bring a little light into the darkness, battery included.