The Yahrtzeit Candle

by  Kirk Glaser

I found the jar pushed to the back of a closet shelf
home from college, helping to empty the house
a few years after my father drowned. The wick
was white, bent unused in dust-furrowed wax.
One winter he had taken me to Bramburt’s Five and Dime
to buy the candle for his father on the anniversary of death.
I wanted to wander off and hunt the dinosaur shelf,
run my fingers over each gleaming Hot Wheel
lost in aromas of rubber and plastic. Instead, he held
my hand past sympathy cards to the wax-filled jars
with the blue Star of David painted on each glass.
My father set one on the counter and gave Mr. Bramburt,
the gray man, a glance. I didn’t know how to read
that look they passed from middle to old age,
a tribal acknowledgment of the need to remember,
to grieve the way one rubs a time-sutured bone
that only hurts when the weather turns cold.
Perhaps my father felt some shame before this man
who must have gone to the orthodox temple, or even
the conservative, practicing as my father had
seated beside his father for the morning prayers,
phylacteries pressed to the skull, the yarmulkes and prayer robes
suffusing clothes and city smoke when entering the temple.
So much abandoned from father to son, the rest
lost upon me, a faith watered down to the reformed temple
so my father could marry the Georgia girl he loved. Or maybe
I imagine this. All I remember is my ill ease as I studied jawbreakers
and gelled insects translucent in their glass jars,
innocent of the exchange over the counter between merchant and father,
innocent of death, embarrassed by this need after years of silence
to remember a man I never knew.
I held the jar over a box marked KEEP there in my father’s closet
and traced the star with a finger, triangle piercing triangle, the paint flaking.
Magen David, I formed on my lips, a name not learned at temple
but from digging in the library for a religion class.
Symbol taken from Tantric texts, the Great Yantra,
eternal union of goddess and god in sexual delight
carried by ecstatic Cabalist Jews of Moorish Spain
into the faith, centuries later hemmed by temple fathers
into the flag of a nationalist dream. Once it had been the star
I drew in grade school, a mark despised when I couldn’t master
the unbroken sweep of the pentagram–the Christian star kids called it,
chosen, no matter how lopsided, to grace every sky and tree
in our December drawings. Who was there to tell us otherwise
the star of Kore in the apple core, star of Ishtar and sister Nephthys,
Celtic star of Morgan, star of goddesses and the earth’s womb.
Even for Hebrews that five-sided star was first of the holy signs
preserving the Seven Seals, inscribed on King Solomon’s ring.
The difference of sides played out in a third-grade classroom:
what difference? Both stars condemned, one by priests
who called the pentacle witch-sign, devil’s seal,
burned women healers and those who worshipped the earth;
the other the yellow badge of shame and death for a few years
spread out like eternity, a fear still hovering over my childhood.
I put the jar in the box full of army tags and patches,
between some yellowed letters in his difficult hand,
carried it to the car and sat it on the seat and drove back to school.
I don’t remember why he never lit the candle: I think I recall
some argument that day, or maybe it was another year,
with my mother–maybe she sensed in his need his own season
to die approaching and faced with her mute intuition
turned at him her anger. Or maybe I made some excuse to stay clear,
uncomfortable around his sudden eruptions of faith,
used to fighting them when he dragged me to temple school or services
on holy days. Or maybe I didn’t want to face in a father
his sorrow piercing guilt. Or more simply, then, a boy after all,
I had no urge to remember a grandfather who died years before I was born,
as my children may one day feel themselves confused
when a sadness overtakes me as September nights lengthen
and the clear warm water holds me again as I pull him up
and need to tell them of their father’s father.
A year or two later, overwhelmed with junk when packing up my dorm,
no home to return to, heading to another coast,
I threw the candle out, wax yellowed and cracked.
No longer to admire the way one triangle reached up from earth
and the other dropped down from heaven’s broad firmament. No longer
to tell a girl the story of what it really means, how one thrusts
into the other, the other yields, back and forth forever in their embrace,
the star the sacred play of body breaking and bearing body.
A form dependent on entanglement, no longer held from the dust.
I could never burn that candle on a certain September night,
the ceremony unfamiliar, a burden that held me from using it merely for light.