Candles by Carl Dennis

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?

17 thoughts on “Candles by Carl Dennis

  1. Thanks Jan for this beautiful poem. It’s like going on a journey contemplating all the connections and possibilities and “wonderings” as Lisa says. Lovely idea to light a candle for that magical unknown connection.


  2. Jan…what an excellent poem… and what an even better presentation by youyou are getting better and better and better at your craftcongratulationsand thanksRich


  3. Thank you for sharing this poem. With a slight twist, it’s resonates with my story. In this case it’s my grandmother who was lost and wandered to my great grandfather’s compound, with only the clothes on her back, tired and hungry, looking for her son who had been missing. She was welcomed to rest there with the promise they would help her look. She never found her son. She ended up becoming my grandfather’s mistress, the only job offered her. I am not sure what choice she had in the matter but she ended up pregnant delivered a daughter, my mother, to the delight of my great grandfather. My grandfather had refused to marry and so by the sheer accident of my grandmother’s appearance at that gate that day, I’m here to tell the tale.

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  4. I think none of us know whom we might touch with a small act of kindness:- the right word of encouragement; a cup of tea with a piece of cake & a listening ear; a brief exchange on a shared bus seat; a smile in a street; a comforting hand on a shoulder.
    We are going into an uncertain time throughout the world, as we wait to see the end of Covid-19 and its terrible undertow. We may see mass unemployment again, an economic decline even a depression.

    In Adelaide SA today we have gone into a 6 day very strict lockdown and face maybe weeks ahead of further lockdown, depending how successful we are at controlling this sudden outbreak. I feel so sad for the cleaner who caught the first virus from a surface touched by a returning citizen coming back from the UK. The lady went home, symptom free, and unknowingly passed it on to her 80 year old mother (she in turn infected a Hospital & Dr’s surgery) and family (one son worked in a Prison).
    Guards at the same quarantine hotel also passed the same genetic version on to their families and one infected a Pizza store, where he worked on days he wasn’t working as a security guard.
    Now 900 people in quarantine. It turns out the UK geno-type is particularly infectious with a turn around time of 24 hrs!
    So now, more than ever co-operation, caring, kindness are vitally important.
    Thank you for the poem. I did think of my much beloved Nan who in 1982 on Hiroshima Day (a day of great importance to her) killed herself by overdosage of drugs. A well planned event, devastating to all her family. She was suffering with uncontrolled pain, her note said simply “Sorry,I can’t stand the pain”


  5. Dear Jan, This poem and all the reflections on it point to the workings of the great mystery, which, when we perceive even a smidgen of its breadth and power, touches the deepest parts of our spirits, souls and hearts. It’s the aspect of life that is irrational–a pure mystery, beyond human reason–and a part of incarnation I want to embrace more fully as I age. I know that I bought into the rational and that I trod the treadmill of the human-created realm for decades…and that letting go into the great mystery is simple but not easy. 🙂

    I lit a candle on Sunday at 11 a.m. to commemorate the moment 5 years ago when my father’s spirit was set free of his body. A story from his life: he used to drive down a certain road when he was retired, to swim at a community pool. He saw the same man 2 days in a row by the side of the road. The man had no shoes. On day 3, my father stopped and spoke to the man. He had in his hands a pair of his own shoes and he offered the shoes to the man. I know he did so in a kind and gentle way. The man refused the shoes and my father continued on. Did he fully accept that rejection? I think he did because he respected people and he understood pride as a human trait.

    Another story…last December, when there was a climate emergency camp set up outside the prime minister’s office at Elgin & Wellington streets in downtown Ottawa, I made a dozen muffins and took the bag downtown as an offering to the 2 women living fulltime in tents at the encampment. No one was there when I arrived & the day was cold. I didn’t want to just leave the muffins outdoors, even had I attached a note of support for their cause, because I knew the women wouldn’t eat them. Various men had come to the site to berate & threaten the women & I figured the women would be suspicious of any food left at the site. So, I walked down Bank street with my paper bag of muffins, en route to a bus stop on Somerset street. I came across a man who appeared to be homeless and I asked him if he would like some food. He asked, what kind of food? I held up the bag and told him what was inside. He said, no thanks. I accepted this rejection without rancor & continued down the street. A few minutes later, I came to the storefront of an abandoned business and decided to leave the muffin bag, with 2 or 3 muffins exposed, on the stoop. I went into a nearby store to buy something and when I came out 10 minutes later, a man was eating the muffins…it was not the man from before. I found myself thinking about the trust involved in eating food that just appeared on the street, and I thought about how i was a bit like a “do-gooder” from a church congregation, someone who offers food to the indigent. Until today, nobody but my husband had heard this story, and I tell it here mainly because part of it parallels my father’s experience of being rejected.

    Thanks for opening this opportunity for sharing of diverse experiences, Jan.


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