The candelabra, made of hammered silver, has a central cup sitting atop a pillar, raised above four cups that sit on the ends of curved branches. The four cups with their candles are compass points, marking the four directions. They mark the journeys of Jews as we have scattered all over the world, escaping when we can the oppression of centuries.
These candelabras are themselves a miracle of survival. They escaped WWII in a large suitcase, surrounded by dresses, gloves, blouses, brassieres, skirts, knickers, socks and stockings, handkerchiefs, and the detritus of a life abandoned. Another suitcase held my father’s clothes and a third my five-month-old brother’s small things. My mother, Selma, held my brother in her arms as the three of them, along with the candelabras, escaped destruction, first moving to Strasbourg, then to Marseilles, then to Havana.
Every Friday night, my mother brought out one of the candelabras to light the Shabbat candles and make the day holy—devoted to this Jewish tradition, even in Catholic Havana. The candelabras brought light to a frightened and frightening life filled with uncertainty. Having been raised on Polish and guttural German, the melodious sounds of Spanish were strange to her ears, emphasizing life’s uncertainties. Yet one day each week, the Sabbath, held the possibility of familiarity and calm.
After two years of unfamiliar Latin American food, music, and street vendors, Selma and her family finally achieved passage to New York, or rather to Ellis Island—along with the candelabras, now packed away among newer dresses and brassieres. Accompanied by a toddler in a buggy, the understandably anxious Selma and her exhausted husband once again moved to a strange land. The candelabras held the known, the remnant of another life. They would continue to shed light on her home for the next 67 years, years when she never felt at home.
The candelabra occupies pride of place in my dining room in Southeast England, sometimes filled with candles, most of the time simply there, a piece of history, a sculpture in hammered silver. I imagine, in my mind’s eye, the silversmith, ball peen chasing tool in hand, fashioning this stately symbol of sanctity. I hear, in my mind’s ear, the regular tattoo of hammer on silver, creating hundreds of tiny dents, each one catching the light of the candles above. One of the arms was bent during the candelabra’s travels in a suitcase. The candles that have since burned in that bent arm remind me of the thousands of miles the candelabra has travelled and the thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions who have been burned, gassed, throttled, drowned, hung, massacred. Did Selma remember them too, each Friday evening?
Polishing the candelabra is a lesson in mindfulness. Each dent tarnishes, at first turning a dull grey and then a charcoal shade. With a bit of polish and focused rubbing, the dents come to life again, glistening with memory. Like the jeweler with his hammer, I don’t want to work too hard. Too much polishing would wear away the many small pools until the surface was almost smooth, losing its history and character.
I often listen to music as I polish this beloved candelabra. I wonder if the silversmith whistled as he wielded his hammer against the soft silver. What was the rhythm of his tune? Did he delicately lift the hammer and place each stroke with creative deliberation? Or did he simply hammer away, trusting his experience to place the ball exactly where it would catch the most light from the flames above? I wonder too: Did he survive, as Selma did, the horror that was to come? Did he escape the inhuman flames after so carefully creating a home for sacred flame?
My candelabra’s mate lives in New York with my niece. It occupies the top shelf of a mid-century walnut breakfront, which also belonged to my mother. My niece, like her grandmother, lights candles every Friday evening. She remembers Selma with fondness, blessing the light and welcoming the day of calm after a grueling week working for social justice. They were very close, Selma and my niece, while my mother and I were poles apart. Regardless, the candelabras create a chain, connecting three generations across miles of ocean and land, across decades of breaths, hours of light and darkness.
Though I do not burn candles to celebrate a weekly Sabbath pause, the candelabra itself serves as a reminder to celebrate light, to admit light into my being. I often light the candles for no reason at all.
Author's CommentObjects hold memory. Memory holds a sense of self in an often chaotic world. Memory also holds a sense of the oneness that unites us all. The candelabra survived through love and constancy. I hope we will too.
BiosFelice Rhiannon, upon her “re-firement,” facilitates workshops in conscious aging. Before "retiring" Felice worked as a yoga therapist with people over 50 and those living with cancer. Her blog posts can be found at http://felicerhiannon.substack.com/ and at www.sage-ing.org.
Lilian H. Hill, PhD, ACC, is professor emerita, School of Education, University of Southern Mississippi. She was inducted into the International Continuing Education Hall of Fame in 2018. She retired in 2021 and has a composite career as a certified life coach, artist, and author.