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Light in the darkness

For some years now, it has been a Christmas Eve tradition in my family for my mother and my sister Ruthie to go to the Starhill Cemetery, the country graveyard near our family home, and light a candle on each grave. A time-consuming task, but a labor of love ¬†and communal memory (because they lit a candle on each and every grave, not just the graves of family members) by Mama and Ruthie. I’ve never seen this with my own eyes, because it has been many years since I’ve been here on Christmas Eve, but I could easily imagine how beautiful it was, given the deep night blanketing the graves so far from the lights of town.

This year, Ruthie lies in the graveyard, having died from cancer in September. My mother was too sad to honor the dead this Christmas Eve, given that her own daughter was now among them. The tradition was to end.

My mother and father stopped by our house in town on the way to evening services at the Methodist Church. Earlier in the day, they told me that they were planning to join us at a family Christmas Eve get-together at my cousin’s house, but when they stopped by late this afternoon, I could tell that they were just too down. They were probably going to go home after church and go to bed.

While they were at services, I drove out to their place in the country to fetch some Santa presents from Daddy’s barn. When I turned onto their road, the sight of a couple hundred pinpricks of light in the graveyard startled me. It looked like fireflies hovering close to the ground. Mama had lit the candles after all! I thought. I wonder why she didn’t tell me? I was going to call her and congratulate her, but I knew she was in church, and couldn’t take the call.

An hour or so later, I was at the party at my cousin’s house, when my mobile phone rang. It was my mother, sobbing. “Rod,” she cried, “somebody put the candles out tonight at the cemetery. On the way home from church, we turned off on the road coming home, and there they were.” She could hardly speak through her tears.

“You’ve got to find out who did this for us,” she said. “Ruthie and I … every year … now somebody … .” She sobbed, and searched for words.

“Whoever it is, they will never know what this meant to me. They will never, ever know.”

Twenty minutes later, the phone rang again. It was my mother, and she was still crying.

“It was Susan Harvey Wymore,” she said. “She had called your daddy a few days ago and asked if I needed help lighting the candles this year. He told her that I wasn’t going to do it this year, because it was too hard, so soon after Ruthie’s death. So she did it for me, and didn’t say a word. Oh God, Rod, she will never know what this means. She will never understand how much this touched me.” And she cried some more.

The Harvey kids grew up around Starhill, though I didn’t really know them, because they were so much older. But Lord, the healing mercy for my mother in that Susan Harvey, going through the cemetery after dark, blessing each grave with a candle, like Mama and Ruthie did for years, to keep the tradition alive. I told everybody at the party about it. A cousin of mine heard this and said, “Isn’t that something. You might not know this, but I believe that Susan buried twins.”

So she knows what it’s like to lose a child — in her case, if my cousin remembers correctly, children. The candles Susan lit in the graveyard tonight were not the only lights that she made shine in the darkness, nor the most important. Ah, this town, these people.

O night, O night divine, O night when Christ was born…

Merry Christmas to you all.

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23 Comments To "Light in the darkness"

#1 Comment By Fr Mark On December 24, 2011 @ 11:41 pm

We read this at the Paschal Vigil, but we should read it on this Holy Night and, indeed, as often as we can:

“That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”

God bless you and yours!

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

#2 Comment By Suz On December 24, 2011 @ 11:57 pm

I have goosebumps and I’m speechless.

Merry Christmas, Rod.

#3 Comment By Angela On December 25, 2011 @ 12:26 am

What a gift of inspired love. There is something so true in this story, hard to type through the tears. God with us, all around us. Have a Merry Christmas and please give your Mom an extra hug. Thank you for sharing this blessing with us.

#4 Comment By Mike On December 25, 2011 @ 12:43 am

Wow, how wonderful small things in life Christ does for us. This is a wonderful story that be sent to all.

God is greeat. Jesus came to save us all if people would only believe Faith through Christ saves us if we ask. Happy Birthday to our Savior Christ Jesus. That’s CHRISTmas

#5 Comment By Kristoofus On December 25, 2011 @ 2:00 am

That, my friend, is beautiful. Heart-achingly so.

A candle in the darkness has always been such a potent metaphor for me. BTW, I lit one for you and your family in Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the early hours of last Monday morning. It was strange. I’d actually started driving away and something inside said, “Nope, you’re not done yet.” So I turned the car around and went back inside. It makes more sense to me now, somehow.

I’m thinking of Peter Morton’s lovely description of the catacombs from his classic guide, A Traveller in Rome. He reported that a medieval pilgrim had written on the walls, “There is light in this darkness; there is music in these tombs.” Tonight, in my heart, I see the flickering lights and hear the music on a hill near St. Francisville. I’m pretty sure it’s a Christmas carol.

Hug ya mama for all of us.

A pax on you all.

#6 Comment By Rod Dreher On December 25, 2011 @ 7:14 am

Thank you, Kris, for your words and for your candle. I — well, we, because I just read your entry to Julie — are so grateful for it, and for your kind heart. Merry Christmas.

#7 Comment By Peter On December 25, 2011 @ 9:12 am

This makes me feel to cry,not with tears of pain, but of nostalgic love! Blessed christmas to all!

#8 Pingback By Transterrestrial Musings – A Light In The Darkness On December 25, 2011 @ 1:00 pm

[…] A sad and beautiful Christmas story. […]

#9 Comment By Kim On December 25, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

What a sweet story. God bless Susan Harvey Wymore, and God bless the Dreher family and ya mama and daddy.

#10 Comment By Erin Manning On December 25, 2011 @ 3:24 pm

Beautiful. Just beautiful. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.

Merry Christmas.

#11 Comment By Rich On December 25, 2011 @ 7:24 pm

As someone who is not religious, I am struck at the stories of simple humanity that you share with us. They consistently bring tears to my cynical eyes. Thank you and best wishes to you and your family for a new (old) life in St. Francisville.

#12 Comment By Lancelot Lamar On December 25, 2011 @ 7:45 pm

What a beautiful story; a true Christmas Eve Candlelight Service. God bless the good people of Starhill.

#13 Comment By Helen On December 25, 2011 @ 10:51 pm

As a mother I have wondered how your parents are faring.

This post is so sweet.

Merry Christmas. to you and your family, Rod. Thank you for sharing these wonderful stories with us.

#14 Comment By cecelia On December 25, 2011 @ 11:05 pm

Blessed Christmas for you and your family – thank you for this story.

#15 Comment By JohnH On December 25, 2011 @ 11:17 pm

Thank you for sharing this beautiful Christmas story… Good tears. Christ is Born!

And as the winter goes, we are halfway thru the dark… A metaphor for much in our lives.

#16 Comment By Charles Cosimano On December 26, 2011 @ 12:33 am

Merry Christmas Rod.

#17 Comment By AndrewENZ On December 26, 2011 @ 1:07 am

Stories like these are what keep me coming back to your blog.

#18 Comment By Florence On December 26, 2011 @ 11:17 am

What a beautiful deed! Susan has blessed all of us by her act of kindness.

#19 Comment By Peter H On December 26, 2011 @ 8:54 pm

What a lovely story. A reminder of what it means to live in community with others.

Merry Christmas.

#20 Comment By Ashley Harvey On December 26, 2011 @ 9:10 pm

I can’t tell you how much the candles lit by your precious mama, sister, and nieces have meant to my family all of these years, especially the first Christmas after we lost my grandfather.

#21 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 27, 2011 @ 10:45 am

Too beautiful for words. I love candles. I can just picture it. Merry third day of Christmas.

#22 Comment By Christi Daugherty On December 30, 2011 @ 9:04 am

Rod, I don’t know if you remember me, but I knew you way back when we were both the youngest reporters at the Baton Rouge State Times. I now live in England and stumbled upon this article along a convoluted path to something else entirely. I’m so very sorry to hear about Ruthie. I’ll be thinking about you and your family this week. Your post broke my heart.

The very best of luck to you in your move back to Louisiana. Sometimes there’s no place like home.

#23 Comment By Alice Douglas On December 30, 2011 @ 6:48 pm

The last time T.G. and myself were there for Christmas some 7 years ago, we happened to go for a Christmas Eve visit with our dear sweet friends Dot and Ray. There Dot and Ruthie were, lighting the candles, oh what a heart-warming glow filled the dusky evening. Our love and friendship spans the miles and I hope this finds all of you sharing the beginning of the New Year with love and many blessings.