Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Educator: Caitlin Donovan
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
Golden light flickers, dancing in the center of the room. The darkness in the corners shies away, gathering beneath the dust. Somewhere, a cockroach scurries through the cracks in the walls. Outside, in the hall, footsteps echo on the cold stairs, the clacking of heels sharp in the silence.
The candle stands alone, assigned nighttime watch. Its eyes sweep the empty expanse of the kitchen, cavernous as the flame twists and turns. The glow runs its little fingers across the edges of the tiled floor, traces the stains on the walls, surveys the droplets of spilled juice and crumbs littering the table. It tilts its head inquisitively. I pick it up, angling it further. Wicks kissing, the second candle catches fire. Its partner’s thin rope unravels slowly, edges singed, fire disappearing in a puff of smoke. Hands trembling, teeth digging into my bottom lip, I strain to relight the wick, which stubbornly ducks out of the way. I poke it, prod it, but it just won’t light. My mother’s candles are already lit, of course, on the first try. She watches as a drop of blue wax solidifies beneath my hovering candle, peels it off the tablecloth with long nails and leather hands, wrinkled from washing the dishes in hot water every day (It’s not warm enough! You won’t get any of the dirt off this way!).
She slips her fingers around mine, guides them. Her skin is rough against my smoothness. Once again, the string catches fire, and the first flame rejoices, swaying back and forth.
Four candles sitting in their menorahs, tiny dots of light surrounded by blackness.
I tug at the uncomfortable headscarf, tied up so that it covers my hair, rebellious strands peeking out from beneath. Sliding my fingers under it, I try to make space. Shift it up and down. Tilt it ever so slightly to the right. My mother gives me the look, the one that’s supposed to mean Quit it. She reprimands me: You mustn’t show your hair to Him.
There’s only three candles to light, two for today and one helper candle. I’ve picked them out this time, an orange one that is mixed with so much yellow wax it shines like amber, another a green the same shade as my eyes, the third yellow tangy like lemon slices. The two menorahs are mirror images of one another, pairs of candles laid out beside them.
I check from which direction I need to insert the candles. Check again.
Still tugging at the headscarf, I touch my wick to my mother’s, which she’s lit with the stovetop.
I pull at loose hair curls as I light the candles, almost perfectly but the last one sputters out seconds after its lit. Again my mother guides my hand, teases the wax, angles the candle every which way until the flame seems to flutter around the white wick. I shake out my hair, grumbling, running my hands through the knots. My mother makes me look again.
Watch it, she says, Isn’t it beautiful?
I sigh, giving my head one last shake. The tightness in my scalp prickles.
Six candles, tiny daggers, melt down slowly, hunching.
In Russia, as a child, my mother sat on windowsills counting the stars that studded the sky, blinking like the stucotto click click of the oven’s spark. Light sliding through the cracks of smooth fingers, tracing the big dipper. The sputtering of embers, dancing like stars in front of her eyes.
She was warned to hold her breath in school, pray inside, keep everything within four walls. Never bring your religion further than your windowsill.
Soviet Russia. My mother says, two words meant to explain everything.
Two words meant to encompass the stares and hushed whispers, the quotas, the boarded up synagogue, the six sided stars hidden beneath pillowcases. In Soviet Russia there was no God. No, not quite — the government was God. To worship anything else was blasphemy.
They hated the Jews since the time of Peter the Great, my mother said matter-of-fact, watching the candles glow, the light reflected on her face.
Today the menorahs are all gold. Yellow candles framed by gold metal, ringed with 8 golden halos, burning higher and higher. I like to imagine they’re brighter than our stovetop, bright enough for God to see them wink at him through His window, twinkling as bright as the stars in the sky.
The lock clinks open, the door swinging in with gusto. My mother’s back late from work, cheeks raw pink from the cold. Her breath clouds, shoulders loosening as the warmth of the room hits her. She turns, closing the door behind her, slides the keys where they belong, motions towards the two headscarves.
As she ties her scarf, I play with the candles, careful not to let them break. When they crack in the middle they dangle, bent out of shape as though full of sorrow, heads leaning toward the floor, carrying heavy burdens. I pluck their stringy heads, roll them on the table. Green, red, green, red, the color of the holiday wreaths on my friend’s door. Christmas is just around the corner! I’m so excited! She had said with a toothy smile. My elementary school teacher had us cut little snowflakes out of red and green construction paper, instructed us on how to fold the paper diagonally, how to hold our scissors poised just so in our hands.
My mother stands behind me, still wearing her sweater, rubbing her hands together, waiting as I grudgingly tie my headscarf around my hair.
We’re a little late, it’s already past sunset, but I hope God will forgive us, she says, moving towards the stovetop. Today, the wax mixes together in uneven stripes, burying yellow and orange beneath a layer of red and green like the signs in all the circulars, the huge paper letters pasted on my teacher’s door. I mouth the words to Have a Merry Christmas, the ones we’re practicing for the winter show. Sometimes I wish my songs sounded like that, smooth and flowing like the Christmas carols they sing on TV, instead of the Dreidel song.
Ten candles lined up neatly, bleeding out.
You’re lucky you get to live in America, my mother reminds me.
Keep it open. Pull the curtains back.
12 candles swaying in the night beside an open window.
Picking at the wax, watching teardrops drip down. Mama, are the candles in pain? Doesn’t it hurt to burn? Digging my fingernails into the blobs, scratching, mining for gold below. Honey, they were made to burn. Peeling back layer after layer, stripping off the congealed mess like removing pith from an orange. But the flame is hot. Pulling the layers off an onion, counting the rings on trees. Yes, well you wouldn’t want them to be cold. A whole history unearthed beneath buried wax.
What is my history? What would I find if I took a nail to my own skin and peeled it back? Would I find leather hands or dusty windowsills? Light blue curtains swaying in the evening dusk?
Come, my mother beckons. Following her to the stovetop, I let the candles kiss for a longer time – to make sure they get warm – I reassure her as the wick burns down to a nub, wax opening up like a blooming flower.
I’ve decided it’s too long to wait for Christmas to come. I’d teach the kids in my class to spin my
little top instead, like my mother had taught me. It’s all in the wrist. My teacher had given out Hanukkah gelt in class today, scolding kids for abandoning golden wrappers strewn on the floor, leaving chocolate marks on their faces. When I’d shown the treasure to my mother, handing her the half-melted chocolate I carefully guarded in my pocket, she twists it in her hands. I wouldn’t have dreamed of getting one of these at my school.
Today, the candles are red and green, like a bouquet of roses. Fourteen little flames blooming on my kitchen table, surrounded by the painted blue flowers on my mother’s favorite tablecloth. Even the darkness seems less dark.
I’ve finally remembered from which side to place the candles. Right to left. The correct order to light them. Left to right. With trembling fingers I carry my helper candle from the stovetop to the table, diligently sliding over tiles, leaning forward and begging the wax don’t drip, don’t drip, don’t drip.
My mother removes her head scarf and heads to the restroom. I can hear the water flowing, almost feel the heat hitting my own fingers as my mother holds them beneath the stream, holds them until a thin vapor begins to rise. I can see the rivulets run through her wrinkles, the winking ones that form when her hands move from side to side, weaving their way through the maze of flickering lights. I rub my own hands together, fingers gliding over marble skin.
I resume my vigil on the kitchen chair, poised on my throne, front legs lifted slightly off the floor. I watch the sixteen young ladies with their colorful dresses and big, broad brimmed golden hats whispering to one another. The nighttime gathering in the shadows of the cabinet and underneath the chairs is much too shy to approach them as they titter and swirl, their hair shining golden embers. Through the windows enters their dancing partner, the swift-footed wind.
My mother, only eight years old, stands in the kitchen, my aunt besides her. My grandfather strikes the match, turning on the old Soviet stove. It flickers, flickers, sputters out. Again. Again. My grandmother brings the candle towards the weak fire. She walks the length of the wooden floorboards, creaking gently beneath her weight. The weight of flames and slightly burnt fingertips. The weight of years of history, thousands of bodies. The wax is white, leaving small stains on the floor which my grandmother will clean later, painstakingly, crouched on the tiles searching for every dot. No one must see.
The four of them watch the other candles catch fire. A single menorah stands poised in the middle of the kitchen table. It’s dark in the room. Darker than dark. The kitchen curtains are drawn closed, the shades pulled down. The silence in the room fills it, melding with the night. The twilight blends with the fizzing of flames, expanding of snow-white wicks. The gentle peeling of wax as the helper candle works its way into the holder in the middle.
There’s only nine candles.
Nine candles that burn brighter than the sputtering flame of the stove top.
Brighter than the stars obscured by the curtains.
Brighter than anything, expanding, engulfing the tiny little kitchen and the small apartment and the four people in it, washing them in golden glow.