Joseph’s little fingers could not resist. They picked at the side of the candle until all the drippings were removed, leaving a nice, clean half spent pillar and a little mound of beeswax piled on the table beside it. When my mother, his Gram, discovered it, she shook her head, swept the waxy crumbles into the palm of her hand and retrieved a match from the antique match holder sitting near the candle. She struck the chalky tip against the bottom of the holder, releasing a flame and a puff of smoke. She lit the candle, letting the wooden match burn down right to her fingertips, then blew out the match with a wisp of air through her lips, watching the smoke rise, knowing the power of carbon to clean out impure odors from the air. My whole life there has been a cup of matches in the bathroom, rather than any kind of aerosol air freshener. When the flame on the candle had created a crater of hot wax, Mom gently tipped the candle, allowing the molten beeswax to trickle over the side, cascading in little teardrops, cooling as it fell. She loved the look of beeswax waterfalls on the sides of her candles. So do I.
When I was sixteen years old, and felt the weight of impending adulthood, I bought an old copy of Little Women at a garage sale and decided to read it by candle light, as if I were Jo writing it, I suppose, in the days before there were light switches and incandescent lighting. Each night, frocked in my Lanz of Salzburg flannel nightgown, I stacked blankets and pillows against the wall at the head of my bed, lit the candle on the dresser between my bed and Libby’s bed, turned out the overhead lights and was gently lowered into the March home, up there in the attic where the girls enacted their plays and shared their secrets, with the sound of Laurie’s piano wafting through the small window in that holy space. The scent of melting wax and the flicker of the flame against the soft ageing pages of that book changed my heart, softened the stark black lines of reality, and allowed me to drift into sleepiness gently and kindly. I was a troubled soul at that time, weakened by what I now know to have been depression, and the sweetness of this blessed routine was a gift.
Years later, when our youngest, Annie, was something like ten-years-old, her dad read Little Women to her, from that very book, every night at bedtime. They would squish beside each other on her twin bed. When they came to the chapter when they knew Beth would die, they refused to read for two weeks, both of them unwilling to let their hearts break. They had to mutually agree to face it before they got through that chapter. I remember Dave coming downstairs that night, his eyes swollen and red. I kissed him and smiled. “Beth died, didn’t she?” A big old tear snuck out from the corner of his eye. (What I would have given to have had a father read to me at night.)
Now, down in what I call the “lower forty”, the lowest section of our back yard, where the scrub oaks grow freely, our friend Ross Burningham has placed a set of beehives. We consider it a gift to our neighborhood to have bees to pollinate, and the honey we get from those bees is so sweet, and healthy, and medicinal to us who live here.
Ross gave me a nice chunk of wax from those hives, which I melted in an old tin can in a pot of water on my stovetop at Christmastime. I invited all my Treasures, the children of our children, to come over. From one-year-old Gracie to thirteen-year-old Timothy, all ten of them lined up in the garage, holding a chopstick to which I had tied a piece of cotton candlewick. One by one they dipped their wick into the molten wax, raised it up while counting to ten, then marched like little soldiers around the perimeter of the garage while their cousins and siblings dipped theirs. The air, out there in the December garage, was cold, and you could see the breath rising from their little mouths, smell the sweet honey scent of the wax, see the color transform from liquid brown to shimmery gold to muted yellow. They repeated the pattern, singing as they went, commenting on the growing size of each one, learning how repeated dips into certain things eventually enlarge the product. We poured the leftover wax into the antique Santa-shaped chocolate molds that sit on the mantle every Christmas.
There is something magical, almost divine, about the aroma of candlewax and the mesmerizing dance of a candle flame. I think of those little bees, toiling away in that dark unknown, gathered there in their little white castle near the cluster of scrub oak in our back yard. So much work, for so long, for a little honey and a little wax. They nourish us, then give us light, those little winged creatures. No man-made scented candle will ever match the scent of God-made beeswax. And, despite little OCD fingers that want to make spent candles look new, I will always want my beeswax to look all craggy and uneven as the candle shrinks. It reminds me of my angel-mother. And of old musty books read by flickering light. And of little hands dipping down and up, down and up on cold winter days, their laughter rising like smoke, up to the heavens.