When I was a little girl in Brooklyn, there were often yahrzeit candles in our home. My grandparents, immigrants from Poland, left many siblings behind in Europe, and I suspect lit the candles in memory of their siblings, parents and other family members. I have no recollection of ever learning or hearing their names. Once the candles flickered out, the yahrzeit glasses were cleaned with soapy water for re-use. We amassed a large collection of the sturdy tumblers. They were great for hot drinks, like tea or morning coffee, so thick you did not burn your fingers as you sipped the steaming beverage.
I continue the the custom of lighting yahrzeit candles on the anniversaries of deaths in my family. I never save the glasses. Sometimes I resort to a small tea light and let it burn for the prescribed twenty-four hours.
I have a warm feeling of comfort when I light these candles and see them burn. This past week was the anniversary of the death of my mother-in-law. We had guests in our home as I lit the candle and we all spoke fondly of our mothers-in-law. The next morning I stood in front of the candle and said words in my heart, thanking her for raising the wonderful son, my husband, who was with me for fifty plus years. In a few weeks I will light a candle for him.
I love the light of candles and what it brings to my life. Several years ago I participated on the March of the Living, a program, originally for teenagers, where we visit concentration camps in Poland. At each camp, all participants are given candles to burn at the sites. One time I was rushing a student along who was lighting a number of candles. He turned to me and said, “Janice, don’t rush me, this is what I came for.”
I was humbled. The young man, grandson of Holocaust survivors, was lighting candles for the family he did not know. He took his time and taught me about being patient and remembering others who may not have someone to remember them.
In 2007 my husband and I were traveling in Irkutsk, Russia on the anniversary of my mother’s death. We visited a small wooden church and I lit a candle for her. Our guide came rushing over to remind me that we lit the candle in the section for memory. When we explained we did it to honor the memory of my mother, he smiled and asked me to tell him about her.
John Milton said it best, “Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” Yahrzeit candles bring light to my life and fill me with memories, so that I do not curse the darkness of living without the one I love.