And So the Shortest Day Came…

Yesterday my son broke a rather expensive glass candlestick. He broke it by kicking a soccer ball at the dining room table, so there wasn’t much room for ambiguity here. He pretty much nailed the sucker.

But let me back up.

Almost nineteen years ago we were given these hand-blown, Vermont-artisan candlesticks as a wedding present. They are quite tall, and elegantly simple, and (as could be intuited from the fact that they are tall, elegantly simple, and handmade), fragile. But I have a stern policy that beautiful things are to be enjoyed and lived with, day in and day out, and so these candlesticks sat on our table for all these years. Until last winter, when I broke one.

I broke it. (Not with a soccer ball). Not the kids, who play all sorts of insane ball or projectile-based games around the table. Not the cats, who despite our best efforts at training leap up and knock over vases of flowers with stunning regularity. Nope, I broke it myself while rushing to clean up the table.

Turns out that elegant simplicity doesn’t come cheap. It would be in the low three figures to replace the candlestick, and we just didn’t have it to spend. So I put away the single one and placed a row of unbreakable, if uninteresting, votive candles on the table. Funnily enough, it was not a case of out of sight, out of mind. I really missed my old candlesticks. There was something about their shape, the length of clear glass, the height of the candle burning tall and lovely. But on the scale of problems in our house, let alone our world, this didn’t even rate. I put it out of my mind.

Then last month we happened to be in a small town in Vermont for a hockey tournament. (You can guess where this is going). It happened to be the town where the artisan glass-blowing Vermonter was plying his trade.


Reader, I bought another candlestick.

As the days of November got shorter and shorter, I was so happy to be sitting in the early darkness with my family by the light of our old familiar candle holders. I appreciated their beauty anew, and the rest of the family agreed.

That was around five weeks ago.

Flash forward to yesterday. It was the shortest day, the winter solstice, the day in our natural calendar that has given rise to so many of our religious and spiritual beliefs. As a New Englander, I deeply feel the pinch of the dark on these shortest days. It can be hard to maintain optimism and energy when faced with encroaching darkness. The solstice is a favorite day for me; a day that reminds me that even though winter is just beginning, even though we have months of snow and ice and cold ahead, we are turning back toward the sun. The days are getting longer.

I was celebrating yesterday, to use that term in a grossly inaccurate way, by shlepping through the grocery store and, lord help me, Marshall’s, buying food and searching for last minute presents. I was not in a pleasant mood. It was in Marshall’s, next to a display of pithy-statement-wielding barware, that I received a phone call from my son.

There were tears. (His). There were questions. (Mine). There were assurances of love. (Both). And promises of payment. (His. Well intentioned, but I happen to know the state of the bank account).

I wasn’t that angry, really. After all, what was the point? It was broken. Being angry wasn’t going to help un-break the glass. He was already distraught. Being angry wasn’t going to make him realize he screwed up. Even as he’s telling me, gulping a little, and sniffling, a small part of my mind was already thinking: this would make a kind of funny story. I obsess about a candlestick for a year, then it gets broken a few weeks after I bite the bullet and replace it. Okay, it wasn’t actually that funny, but still.

I drove out of the strip mall, having not found the last few presents I needed, bummed about the candlestick, and full of the low-grade frisson of rush and stress that accompanies the it’s-Sunday-and-laundry-and-a-seven-o’clock-hockey-game-and-presents-and-did-I-seriously-forget-milk-dammit.

As I waited for the light to change there were two individuals on either side of the road, a man and a woman. They were bundled in coats and boots, young-ish, and each held a cardboard sign that read: “Homeless couple. Just trying to get off the streets for the holidays. Please help if you can. God Bless You.”

I live in a pretty small town, and while there is poverty here, most of it is tucked out of sight. These people looked a lot like everyone else here, except for the signs. I sat in the line of traffic, waiting to make a turn, and the light changed before I could really process my thoughts, which were something like this: Do I have any cash in my wallet? They look so normal. Is she wearing Ugg boots? I know there’s a heroin problem in town. I wonder if that’s it. God I wish they could go home. I wish they had a home to go to. By the time I had found my purse (on the floor under a case of clementines) the light had changed. I made the turn and they were behind me, out of sight. But not out of mind.

I turned into the driveway of the empty bank next door, and parked. Sure enough, my wallet had limited cash. (Probably a quarter of the cost of the candlestick that was in shards on the table). I pulled it out and walked through the empty parking lot toward the women. Next to her the line of cars still sat, everyone on their phones or dealing with their radios or maybe, like I had been, trying to process how to help, how they could possibly help, in a moment before the light changed.

I handed her the money and wished her the best of luck. I wanted to ask if she had anyone to call. I wanted to give her the phone number of the shelter in town, or find out if she needed to see a doctor. I didn’t do any of those things. I handed her the money, and looked at her for a second, rather than looking away. Then I got back in my car, which was full of food and a few more unnecessary presents, and looked out at the fading daylight.

It was not yet four o’clock and it was already getting dark. The shortest day was upon us.

I went home and we unloaded the groceries, we cleaned up the glass, we made it to hockey and back, then we lit the menorah and said the Chanukah blessings and stared at the flickering candles and the gleaming Christmas tree lights as they danced in the darkness.

The candlestick is well and truly broken. So much is, in our world. But this shortest day reminded me again (and it seems I need so many reminders), how to cherish what I am lucky enough to find whole and intact.

Happy Solstice, all. Here’s to longer days ahead.


P.S. The title of this post came from the Susan Cooper poem, The Shortest Day. I have linked to it before, as it is one of my favorites. But here it is again, for any who want to read it today.[this]/0/


1 comment to And So the Shortest Day Came…

  • Carol Chittenden

    (that’s my new post-retirement e-mail, btw)

    Dana, you are worth ten times your weight in candlesticks. Your writing will bring more light and warmth and kindness to the world than Heinz has pickles. So glad our paths intersected before mine veers out of bookselling!

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