My Grandmother’s Candlesticks

By Amy Hirshberg Lederman
Published in Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

I awoke from a sound sleep and bolted upright in the dark room. The digital clock read 6:01 A.M., and the birds had already begun their morning song. I sat very still, my breathing shallow; my heart raced as thoughts and feelings overwhelmed me. I knew that she had been here, that she had stood over me while I slept, that she had come to kiss me good-bye. I still felt her warmth on my lips and her undeniable scent permeated the room.

“Grandma,” I whispered. “Grandma, where are you?” I wanted so desperately to talk to her, to hold her one more time.

My husband, still asleep, moved closer to me. I touched him lightly on the shoulder. “Ray, wake up honey,” I whispered as I felt the hot tears roll down onto my cheeks. As if in a dream I heard myself say with absolute certainty, “Grandma Edna just died.”

Afraid of my intuition, I reached over to turn on the light which was next to my bed. On my nightstand is a picture of Grandma and me, which was taken the last time I was with her. She is holding my daughter Lauren, who is two-and-a half years old at the time. There is a faraway look in Grandma’s smiling eyes, betraying the cataracts that plagued her for so many years. Looking at the photograph, I can see our similarities so clearly now that she is gone. Our faces contain the same history; they read like maps of the same territory traveled over different periods of time. Small, pert Russian noses, fair, freckled skin and shining, mischievous eyes. We loved each other without question or hesitation and while the meaning of her world shrunk as the opportunities in mine grew, she never failed to tell me what to do and how to do it.

Born in the small Russian town of Lutsk in 1887, Edna Wolfe left Russia at eighteen month and sailed to America with her two older sisters, her brother and her father. Her own mother was forced to stay behind because she couldn’t leave her blind mother alone. When she was finally able to come to America, she traveled with nothing but the clothes on her back. “But she tricked them,” Grandma would tell me with a twinkle in her eye. “She hid our Shabbas candlesticks in the lining of her winter coat and never took that coat off until she landed in New York.”

Those candlesticks were testimony to a way of life; they were the triumph of a broken family fighting to find their way back to one another in a land that promised everything. Grandma lit those candlesticks every holiday and each Shabbat. She would close her eyes and mumble while swaying back and forth in front of the dancing flames. As a young girl, I thought she knew everything, that the power of the world rested in those small, freckled fingertips that spread the warmth of the candle’s light. I saw her as the source of our family tradition, the ultimate word on what we should all do and be.

Some things are easy to remember, like the smell of her kitchen when she was cooking, or the red leather pocketbook she brought me from Mexico for my fifth birthday or the soft, brown leather recliner in her den which smelled like rosewater and my grandpa’s aftershave.

Some things I never understood, like her stiffness when Grandpa hugged her or why she never seemed satisfied with her life. I realize now that what she loved best was people. As was common for women of her generation, she had only a fifth-grade education and never felt comfortable in the world of books. Instead, she read people’s faces and studied the fine print of their expressions; what they said, what they left out. She defined herself through her children but desperately resented them when they didn’t need her anymore.

I asked her one day when I was in high school if she ever wanted to do something, have a career, write a book. She answered without hesitation, “What would I do with all of that? I did what I knew. I cooked, I cleaned, I raised my children. And now they’re gone, off with their busy lives, always so busy. I never thought…” Her words trailed off and a distant look crossed her face. In her memories she found not comfort but abandonment and betrayal.

After I graduated college, I would visit her whenever I could. She couldn’t understand my need to go, to see the world. In her opinion, I was missing the point. “Raise a family,” she told me, “and your heart will never be the same.”

It was getting harder for me to share my world of politics, feminism and adventure with her, and I would leave feeling frustrated at how little I was able to communicate. As we both got older however, it became less important for me to make her understand my life because I realized that she still had so much to tell me about hers. She was becoming more afraid of death and needed to talk about her world in order to make sense of it before she died. Why did she feel so discarded, so useless after all the years of being the central force behind her family? Why did not one of her children ask her to come and live with them?

I will never forget the day I visited her in the nursing home just a few months before she died. She had become diminished, not so much by age but the bitter ironies of her life. She seemed happy when I told her about my two children, my husband and the home we had made together. But my law career and the many aspirations I had were of no real interest to her. She held my hand on the small sofa and I stared at the big, brown freckles that covered her skin. She needed so much reassurance now, to know that her life had been meaningful.

I painted her fingernails red while we talked and she reminisced about the old days. Of her sisters and the hours they spent laughing together in the kitchen, sharing secrets, when they all lived together in the house on Fair Street. Of my father and what a ‘prince’ he had been but how he never understood her anymore. I sensed in her ramblings that she was in another time and place entirely.

As I got ready to leave, she slowly got up from her chair. She walked toward me and then, changing her mind, headed directly towards the hutch that contained the few remaining items she kept from the old days. She took down the beautiful brass candlesticks that I had loved since I was a little girl.

“My darling girl,” she said with watery eyes. “You have always been filled with the love of your Jewishness. May you find joy and meaning in whatever you choose to do with your life. But remember, nothing you do will be more important than your family.” She handed me the candlesticks and said, “It is only right that these should belong to you now.”

It has been more than two decades  now since my grandma died. Sometimes all I need is the scent of cinnamon or a jar of Ponds Cold Cream to bring her back to me. But as the years pass, she has become harder and harder to recall. I am certain that is why she gave me her candlesticks. For each time I light the candles, I feel her love for me gently burning in the flames and bestowing upon me the power and inner-strength to create a life of meaning and purpose. And in doing so, I have come to understand the legacy of her life and the meaning of her blessing.