By Michael Laser
On this day thirty-nine years ago, my mother died.
Last night I went down to the kitchen and lit a candle for her, as I’ve done for many years. Standing before the flame, I remembered her face and certain moments when her playful, girlish spirit glowed most brightly. More ambitiously, I tried to open myself to these memories, to love her and grieve for her again—to cut through the hardened skin and reach the tender place that time has buried.
As always, I fell short.
It’s a Jewish tradition to light a yahrzeit candle (the word means “time of year” in Yiddish) the evening before the anniversary of a loved one’s death. I’ve been doing this for a long time—for my mother, for my sister’s first husband, who died when he was thirty-six, and for my father. You’re supposed to light the candle at sunset, but I wait longer, until my children are asleep and my wife is watching television upstairs. Bringing the dead back to life requires solitude, silence, and concentration.
The memory I reconstructed last night was the time my mother took me skiing at Sterling Forest. I was fourteen and itching to ski a second time, after a trip organized by a local Jewish center the winter before. My mother never managed to pass her driver’s test, so we took a bus from the Port Authority, after an hour-long bus and subway trip from Queens. (This took place during the two-year period of my parents’ divorce, before she gave up her dream of a happier life and married my father again.) She didn’t dare put on skis herself; instead, she spent the day in the heated lodge. Each time I checked in, she smiled a full-to-bursting smile. She may have been glad to see her son enjoying himself—or perhaps some handsome stranger had flirted with her. She had always craved adventure and romance, and rarely got any.
Looking back, her generosity seems almost superhuman. Getting there without a car had taken hours—and then she had to spend the day inside a soggy snack bar. Yet she never complained, or even sighed. (Of course, it’s possible that I’m misremembering.)
Not even this memory, though, could break open the locked place. The trouble is, I’ve used it before. My fund of memories is limited; I’ve gone back to the same ones too many times.
The candle burned on the stove all night, and it’s still burning today. Each time I pass through the kitchen, the pale flame reminds me to pause and think of her. Each sighting is another chance to pay her the tribute she deserves.
Again and again, I fail.
My parents never belonged to a synagogue. I grew up without Hebrew school, seders, or religious belief. I find it odd therefore, and a bit absurd, to catch myself lighting yahrzeit candles.
There’s a simple explanation: when I was young, I saw my mother do this for her mother. After she died, it seemed a comforting way to honor her. For me, the custom has nothing to do with faith. Rather, it’s a way of repaying through remembrance the love I owe to those I’ve lost.
But why is it so hard? It shouldn’t be. I’m not trying to contact the spirit world, or hold a soul in my hand, or see eternity.
The answer is scar tissue. My mother died when I was nineteen and away at college. She’d had a hysterectomy the year before, and it had gone badly; she swelled and never felt right again. Still, her sudden death, alone at home while my father worked, stunned and overwhelmed us all. Those first few days, I worked to keep hold of myself, to get through the hours without breaking down in tears. Then a little granule of thought or memory would set loose an overpowering wave of grief. I hated the feeling—like a seizure, or a psychotic episode—and fought it with all my will. Holding it together: the words describe perfectly the effort to keep from falling apart.
I resisted grief just as tenaciously as I resisted other difficult emotions. My parents’ raging fights had terrified me as a child; I closed the door and shut out their voices to keep the horror from touching me.
Those waves of pain after my mother’s death battered and breached my fortifications. Each one left me more determined not to give in to the next.
Since then, I’ve built more barricades. That’s the real reason why I can’t reach the place I seek as I stare at the yahrzeit flame: the armor is too thick. I’m no more capable of voluntarily returning to that pain than I am of strangling myself with my own hands. The older I get, the less of the mourner’s feeling remains. I linger at the flame, but eventually have to accept that I’m not getting any closer. Regretfully, I leave the candle behind and go upstairs.
It’s not that I’m no longer capable of grief, only that I can’t recover the sensation in these old wounds—not by concentrated effort, anyway.
When memories come unsolicited, though, I can still surprise myself. A few days before my father’s yahrzeit this year, a speaking engagement took me to Florida, where he had lived for the last twenty-four years of his life. As my wife and son and I stepped out of the jetway, the familiar blend of heat, air-conditioning, and humidity carried me back to the many times when I’d visited and found him waiting right here at the gate, searching for my face. The emotion I’ve been seeking at the candle nearly drowned me. For my wife and son, who’d known my father only in old age, this was an ordinary arrival, free of emotion. For me, it came with a crushing reminder that my father, whose bent leg I used to slide down, will never come to meet me again.
For some, religious ritual opens the door to the spirit. Not for me. Reluctant to say words I don’t believe, I avoid ceremonies and prayers of all kinds.
That doesn’t mean I deny the spiritual altogether. There’s more to us than earning a living, running errands, and watching TV. I don’t want to lapse into sentimental hooey, but I do believe that each of us has a soul—a stew of hopes and sorrows, ideals and memories, rarely perceived except in solitude.
Once, in Central Park, I found myself alone under the trees with rain falling quietly on the leaves around me and on the umbrella above my head. That unexpected peace filled me with bliss. Though inexperienced in such matters, I recognized the state as a gentle form of what others might call religious ecstasy.
Yahrzeit candles serve as another entryway to this mysterious place. If anything can inspire meditation, it’s a small, slender flame. (Think of Georges de La Tour’s paintings, especially “The Penitent Magdalen.”) Even a whisper will upset the fragile fire; a forceful breath will put it out. As the flame consumes wax and wick, you can’t help thinking of the span of a life.
By gazing at the candle, I remove myself from the tasks that keep me busy. Although my goal is more emotional than spiritual, the effort resembles a monk’s prayer: an attempt to contact something intangible. I find it ironic, even a bit embarrassing, that I—the most irreligious person I know—should end up in so devout a pose.
If my goal is unguarded love and sorrow, then I’ve never reached it. I can admit to myself now that I no longer expect to. Even so, there’s satisfaction in simply pausing before the candle and remembering. Though sometimes the memories that come back are exactly the wrong kind—my mother sobbing because the washing machine had flooded the kitchen, my father’s vicious words when they fought, my brother-in-law shouting, “Prick!” at another driver who’d cursed him—recalling these moments brings my lost family back into the world. That’s no small achievement, after so many years.
Rather than struggle to feel what I can’t, I intend to celebrate future yahrzeits by enjoying the memories: Danny, my brother-in-law, making waves with an air mattress at Aunt Dotty’s above-ground pool until the water splashed over the side, sending cousin Gregory and me to the highest heights of boyish happiness. And my father patiently driving me wherever I asked him to on those Saturday mornings when they were divorced—to Kennedy Airport to watch planes take off, and the new McDonald’s for lunch, and one Shell station after another, so I could collect a complete set of commemorative coins of the presidents. I see now why he indulged that ridiculous desire: like my mother taking me skiing by bus, he knew their battles had left me wounded, and would have done almost anything to repair the damage.
Those pointless coins have been lost for decades. The memory is still with me, though, rich enough to yield new understanding even now.
MICHAEL LASER writes novels for adults and adolescents. His most recent book is Hidden Away, about a teenager who disappears on the morning of the SAT. For more about him and his work, visit michaellaser.com.