If on your grandmother’s birthday you burn a candle
To honor her memory, you might think of burning an extra
To honor the memory of someone who never met her,
A man who may have come to the town she lived in
Looking for work and never found it.
Picture him taking a stroll one morning,
After a month of grief with the want ads,
To refresh himself in the park before moving on.
Suppose he notices on the gravel path the shards
Of a green glass bottle that your grandmother,
Then still a girl, will be destined to step on
When she wanders barefoot away from her school picnic
If he doesn’t stoop down and scoop the mess up
With the want-ad section and carry it to a trash can.
For you to burn a candle for him
You needn’t suppose the cut would be a deep one,
Just deep enough to keep her at home
The night of the hay ride when she meets Helen,
Who is soon to become her dearest friend,
Whose brother George, thirty years later,
Helps your grandfather with a loan so his shoe store
Doesn’t go under in the Great Depression
And his son, your father, is able to stay in school
Where his love of learning is fanned into flames,
A love he labors, later, to kindle in you.
How grateful you are for your father’s efforts
Is shown by the candles you’ve burned for him.
But today, for a change, why not a candle
For the man whose name is unknown to you?
Take a moment to wonder whether he died at home
With friends and family or alone on the road,
On the look-out for no one to sit at his bedside
And hold his hand, the very hand
It’s time for you to imagine holding.
The first time I read this poem, I felt as if someone had told my story, not all of it but the first part, the part my mother told to me. About how as a young girl in the 1920s a man came to their door one day looking for work, asking for food. My grandmother made him a thick ham sandwich which he ate on the porch with a glass of milk while she gave him directions to the Ford Motor Company not far away where he might ask for work. My mother knew nothing more of this story but it stirred a curiosity in me – whatever became of this wandering man?
Suppose someone in your family could trace their history back to a simple event such as this, a small kindness that led to an apparently random series of events – a friendship, a marriage, a loan, an education that works its way to you, to your life.
As the poet says, why not light a candle for the man whose name is unknown to you and to wonder how his life unfolded, whether he died at home with family and friends or alone on the road. Can you imagine this person you have never met, imagine holding his or her hand, whispering thank you, wondering how different your life might have been without this unknown person.
For whom might you light a candle now?