A Flicker of Light

I’d enter my grandparents’ house gripping the small black pillow my Mom had made to ease the long trip. After the brightness outside, the gloom of the living room terrified me.

I never quite knew where to look: at the mysterious staircase that anchored the left wall, at the living room books holding up the ceiling, at the heavy unwelcoming furniture so unlike the Scandinavian Modern in my own home.

I’d slide carefully along the staircase, slipping back to the tiny kitchen where my Grandmom would be.

It seemed that my passage through the dark house was metaphorical in some way: from the sunny white-trimmed brick houses, each sharing a common wall along this Brooklyn street, into the dim enclosed porch crowded with plants, through the char-black living room and dining room, to the kitchen, with its fixtures, table and — and last — a window with its shade thrown high.

To me, the dining room in particular was like the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Although I didn’t know that phrase, I sensed the room’s sadness and did not want to linger. My Grandmom’s cooking invited me onward; there was nothing in the dining room that I wanted to see.

But of course, that wasn’t true. As I navigated toward the light, I gazed at the reddish glow in the far corner of the dining room. The room contained a table and enough chairs for visiting family (although we never sat there). And it contained a massive mahogany sideboard along the right side, maybe with a dark framed mirror where a window should have been. One of my Grandmom’s beautiful crocheted runners softened the menacing hulk and perhaps more lace draped the table.

But in the far corner, the darkness was nearly complete — and scary.

I think I ventured there once, to finger the objects and to ask questions. And I must have been caught, scolded — because thereafter I kept my distance, gladly.

For I saw a child-sized glass cup, ribbed and ruby red. Maybe it was leafed with bits of gold. It held the smallest and saddest candle I had ever seen. Not an adolescent-sized birthday candle, skinny and giggling; or an elegantly aloof taper, condescending to join our Sunday dinners.

No, this was a squat, hiding candle that nobody seemed to be looking at, crouched there beckoning and repelling at the same time.

It rested on the edge of the lace runner and protected a few small religious statues: maybe a palm-sized Blessed Mother, hands welcoming; maybe a crucifix. And propped against the mirror, in a dark wood frame, was an old, old photo of a boy.

I don’t know: maybe he was my age. Was his name Eddie? My Mom, oldest of five, spoke of him once — my brother, she said, the oldest of six, dead before I knew him.

I haven’t thought of him in 55 years. Is this memory even true? Or is it a melding of fragments from other family stories? I don’t know.

I know, though, that the red glowing shrine is true. I know that its aura of sadness is true. I know that the power of a small dark place dedicated continuously to remembering — and, therefore, to prayer — is also true.

Maybe that’s why decades later, on September 11, 2001, in the corner of my own dining room I placed a small glass cup, ribbed and gilded, and a small squat candle, burning bravely, next to a palm-sized ceramic panel of the Madonna and Child I’d pulled from a drawer.

My younger child, five years old, was frightened and entranced by this upset to order. I meanwhile, found a flicker of light in deepest darkness. And with the flame the pulsing power of sadness and remembering.

I wrote this piece for Five Minute Friday, a faith-based community blogging site at https://fiveminutefriday.com/2019/06/06/fmf-writing-prompt-link-up-well/ Scroll all the way down and check out the other short essays on the topic of “Well.”  

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