Candles Burning in the Night; A Family Tradition

“Mr. King, are you a Catholic?” a fellow teacher asked me as we strolled down the hill from St. Peter’s RC.

“Yes, I was raised Catholic,” I responded as a large truck barreled past, three individuals riding in the back.

“Are you going to light candles tonight?” she asked.

“You know, I heard about that. What exactly is it?”

“Catholics go to the cemetery to light candles around the graves on the night of All Saints Day,” she says as two school children stomp past us. “You don’t do that in America?”

I never did,” I say, not wanting to generalize Americans. “I like that idea, though.”

When I arrived home, my bag dropped to the floor and I kicked off my shoes. After opening the windows to try and ease the stifling heat inside, I began to pass the time relaxing on my couch and contemplated whether I should attend the candlelight vigil.

A few teachers that day mentioned the ceremony to me. Every year on All Saints Day, Grenadians of the Catholic faith go to their local cemetery to light candles and spend time with loved ones that have passed on. It seemed to be a popular community event. One of the teachers was even having a barbeque after, so I figured I’d check it out and at least stop and get some dinner there.

A few hours passed and the night sky dropped its curtain outside. I idly passed the time, wanting to arrive after it started so I could show up and not directly deal with any inevitable awkward conversations. Word was it would start at 6:00 or 7:00 p.m., so I decided I would leave my apartment at 7:15; that would be about right for ‘island time.’

When 7:15 rolled around, I threw on some khaki pants and a plain green t-shirt. I wasn’t sure how formal this event would be, so I figured this outfit was a solid middle ground. Not too casual for a formal setting, but not too formal for a casual setting. After closing up my apartment, I stepped out onto the road and locked the gate behind me. As I turned around, a mother with three children were walking hand-in-hand. I fell in behind them, figuring they were headed to the cemetery as well. When we reached the main road, families, couples, and other pedestrians were all making their way down the road to the cemetery. There was a bit of a buzz in the air as I followed the stream of people along the coastline sidewalk. A few cars were passing by, their headlights briefly shining on the pedestrians before they faded back into silhouettes in the night.

It was a clear, picture perfect night. A few stars speckled across the banner of the sky, but the streetlights drowned out most of them from my view on the sidewalk. The rhythm of a reggae song boomed from a sound system within a simple wooden shack-house perched on the hillside next to the park. Walking along the concrete wall that separates the park from the road, a line of cars was parked on both sides of the road. I hadn’t seen this many cars parked here since I arrived a few months ago. Looking just beyond the bus stop ahead, a series of flames spotted the hillside cemetery. It was like a scene out of a Halloween movie and gave an eerie presence to the night.

When I walked through the overarching gate to the cemetery, however, the atmosphere was anything but eerie. People were everywhere. I walked up the beaten dirt path overcrowded with families, couples, and children while still more were intermittently scattered around candlelit graves. The candle flames flickered their light, illuminating all their faces in the dark night. Some of the graves had a single candle, others had candles on all four corners, and still more had candles all around and across the top.

As I made my way up the hill, to my left a man was leaning over a tomb. He carefully lights the candles he’s placed on the grave. I wonder who he’s there for: his wife? His mother? His father or brother? But it doesn’t matter who he’s there for, what’s important is that he is spending his night of All Saints Day with his deceased loved one.

I continue my way up the hill and turn left into the concrete structure where benches are filled with people conversing. I weasel my way through the mass of people and it opens to the rest of the hillside cemetery.

“Mr. King! You came!” another teacher from the school, with her teenage daughter at her side, calls to me.

“Yes, I came to see what this was all about,” I laughed, as she had been the first one to suggest that afternoon that I come.

She proceeded to tell me where some of the other teachers were, and where I could get the barbecue chicken. She asked me my thoughts on the candlelight ceremony. I was still processing my surroundings and the serenity of the night, but I told her I was pleased and couldn’t understand why we didn’t do it in the States. Personally, I was captivated by the night, and was anxious to continue observing all that was going on.

“All right,” I said. “I’m going to float around for a little bit so I’ll see you at the barbecue.”

We parted ways and I walked along the path. Passing across the center of the hill, a sea of candlelit graves lay below to my left and countless more rose up the hill to my right. There was no need for street lights that night, there were enough candles to see clearly enough.

I continued wandering aimlessly down the path, taking it all in and not really knowing where I was going. I reached the end of the path as it came to a dead-end (pun not originally intended, but decided to keep it). One final column of tombs marked the end of the cemetery. I stopped and paused for a moment, turning around and scanning the glimmering cemetery hillside in front of me.

To my left were some younger men leaning up against a tomb, drinking Caribs and smoking cigarettes while they conversed. At the tomb in front of me a couple arrives with two small children. The mother bends over unpacking her bag and handing each child a candle. They run over to a neighboring grave, lined along the front with half a dozen or so candles. After lighting the candles their mother gave them, they ran back and wedged them into the ground around the tomb of their loved one. The kids then took off into the night, leaving to find their friends while the couple took a seat under the tree next to the gravesite.

“King!” a voice called out.

Caught off guard, I spun around to see halfway up the hill was Slade, one of the first people I met in Gouyave.

He waves me up, so I make my way up the hill where he was sitting on a tomb. In front of him was a soft, earthy grave, covered in flowers and wreaths with a perimeter of candles burning around it.

“If you don’t mind me asking, who do you have here?” I asked him.

“My grandfather,” he says.

He proceeds to tell me about his grandfather, someone he was particularly close to. He and his grandfather had a connection no one else in the family seemed to have. He told me about when he was young; he had been the one to teach his grandfather how to use a television remote.

We laughed at the thought.

“Well, did you light a candle?” he asks me.

“Uh, no I haven’t. I didn’t bring one,” I replied.

“You came to the candlelight and didn’t even bring a candle!? Well here, go ahead and light one,” he says, reaching into his bag and tossing me a candle.

“Yeah? Okay, thanks,” I crouched down, lighting the white candlestick from another one rapidly melting at the corner of the grave. Scanning the earthy grave before me, I found a spot and wedged it securely into the ground.

“Come sit down,” he slaps the spot next to him on the tomb he was sitting on.

I had been standing for some time now, not wanting to be rude or insensitive by sitting on a tomb. But his permission freed me from that thought so I hopped up next to him. We spent the next hour or so sharing family stories, talking about life on Grenada and life in America. The flames from the candles reflected off his glasses as he told me about the history of the candle-lighting tradition on All Saints Day.

Supposedly a few years back a priest from somewhere in Africa visited Gouyave, and upon learning of the tradition preached aggressively against the candle lighting on All Saints Day. Instead, the priest proposed, the community should light candles on All Souls Day the following day, as that would be more appropriate to the nature of a cemetery’s inhabitants. Ever since then, it seems as though half the community lights candles on All Saints Day, the other half on All Souls Day. But before that time, he told me as his eyes lit up, there would be so many candles it was as if the whole hillside was on fire. I could almost see it myself as he envisioned it all in front of him from memory. I thought there was a substantial amount of candles as it was, so I can only imagine what it must have been like before the African priest came.

All around us there was a buzz in the air. It was like the atmosphere of a Fourth of July fireworks show. Not the firework show itself, though, but the evening part before it where everyone lays out blankets and shares a picnic. There’s an excitement bubbling in the air as kids run around and a steady murmur of activity resonates in the air. That’s what the atmosphere of this night felt like to me.

“Mr. King! Is that your father?” a student from my class asks, running up to me and looking down at the candlelit grave before me.

“No, it is not,” I answer with a smile.

I smiled because I did find some humor in the innocence of the question. He was genuinely wondering, to which I am grateful he would consider asking me. However, he must not have processed that because I am not from here, no one from my family would be laid to rest in this cemetery. It’s the little things that can make you laugh.

It was nice to get to spend some time in a family atmosphere. All around me was an abundance of candlelit graves that made for such a tranquil view. Off to the right a group of children surrounded a tomb, trying to put as many candles as possible on its surface so that it seemed as if the whole tomb itself was on fire. Other children ran around from grave to grave, collecting the wax that ran off the top of the candle to make a ball to play with.

I fell in love with the concept of lighting candles at the graves on All Saints Day. It made for such a serene and beautiful night. I suppose no one does it in Cleveland simply because it’s too cold by November 1st. But this is a tradition I could buy into. I love how it incorporates both past and present, bringing families together around the final resting place of the loved ones that went before them.

Looking on, at the heart of the candlelit hillside was a single palm tree, stretching out to the sky above all the other surrounding trees so it appeared to almost stand on its own. The light from the candles illuminated the leaves from underneath, as if a streetlight were shining under it.

It felt like I was in a foreign place. I felt far from home.

Maybe it was being in a family atmosphere again, where a holiday is observed and families gather to commemorate those that have passed on. Its times like these that leads you to reflect on the family and friends you left behind that can make you feel homesick. As you can imagine, homesickness is something that plays a huge role in the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer. Up to this point, I think I’ve managed it fairly well. It comes and goes in waves. I try not to dwell on it too much and get out of the apartment instead. It’s easy to get wrapped up in what you’re missing stateside, so I try and distract myself by enveloping myself in the community around me. There is certainly seems to be enough going on to occupy my mind.

But for the first time in my life I didn’t experience the fall season. I didn’t see the leaves change color or feel the temperature drop with each passing day. I didn’t get to carve a pumpkin or tailgate the Muni Lot before a Browns game.

Over the summer I missed a close friend’s wedding and a family vacation. Both of which were tough, but at the time there was enough excitement around my training on St. Lucia that I was able to distract myself from the thought of what I was missing until they were over.

Just this past month, however, I missed my cousin’s wedding. I saw the pictures and videos. I heard the family’s stories from the night. It was strange not being part of that, as it was the first family wedding that I missed. Weddings are a focal point and one of the most significant moments in a person’s life, so I place a lot of value on attending them to celebrate alongside family and friends. I wish I could have been a part of that, but it was just not feasible for me to attend due my current circumstances. However, I also understood that I would be giving up family events like that when I accepted the invitation to serve.

A few days before the candlelight ceremony, in the wee hours of the morning on October 28, I learned that my brother and sister-in-law just welcomed a baby girl, Brenna Elizabeth King, into the world. For those that aren’t aware of the nature of the King family, girls are a rare occurrence. My father is one of four boys. I am one of five boys with only one sister. I already have two nephews. But now I can proudly say I have a niece. A King girl being born is a cause to celebrate, as we now have another “rose amongst the thorns,” as my father always says.

When I heard the news that late October night, I stepped outside and sat down on the staircase of a veranda, looking up at the star-speckled night sky. The palm trees, breadfruit trees, and surrounding foliage were rustling in the early morning breeze around me. It was another beautiful island night as the never-ending mechanical sound of the crickets accompanied me. I was overcome with an uplifting joy in my chest and began to cry as the reality of the news sank in. They weren’t tears of sadness, but tears of joy; I now have a niece. I admit, I was hoping for a girl. I can’t wait to meet her.

This was another one of those moments, much like the one I would feel again the night of the candlelight vigil, when I felt far from home. Like I said before, it comes in waves. For about five months now, I have been roughly 2,500 miles from home. So much has happened in five months, but when you think about it, five months really is not a long time at all.

One thing I miss the most is the convenience of going home for a weekend or for special family occasions. If I were still in Columbus or Cleveland, I would’ve been able to attend those weddings, that family vacation, and met beautiful, little Brenna already. I would have been able to return to Capital University for alumni weekend and hit up the Zig with old classmates and friends. I would’ve been able to go downtown for the playoff games to cheer on the Indians and Cavs while they played.

I’m not asking for pity, after all I hardly deserve it. I knew what I was giving up before coming here. I accepted that those sacrifices come with nature of the position. Being here really is a dream come true. But that doesn’t mean sometimes I wish I could be home. In fact, I think of home every night. Thankfully, I’ll be coming home for a week in December around Christmastime.

I’ll be able to attend a wedding of a college roommate and one of my closest friends. I’ll get to see my ‘Capfam’ and the hometown squad of ‘Iggy boys.’ But most importantly, I’ll get to see my family. Just thinking about coming home puts a smile on my face and a bubbling excitement in my chest.

That’s what experiencing the graveside candlelight vigil on All Saints Day meant to me. It reminded me of the importance of doing things as a family. It reminded me of the importance of taking the time to acknowledge the past and celebrate the present. It was an opportunity to think about where I came from and how it got me to where I am now. It reminded me of the value that holidays and special family events have, where a certain day in the year is cause to come together as a family and celebrate.

It also showed me the value in my experience serving with the Peace Corps in a foreign country. I experienced first-hand a tradition that was totally foreign to me. It’s a tradition that I would like to bring back with me. I certainly have some people that were in my life that shaped who I am and deserve to be commemorated with a graveside candlelight. That being said, I have other people still on this Earth that deserve my time. Sometimes, it takes being stranded on an island 2,500 miles away to remind you of that.

“Well, I’m about to go stop for some barbecue chicken,” I said to Slade after snapping back to reality.

“It’s about time I go, too,” he replied. “I’ll walk out with you.”

As we made our way through the cemetery, I would pause every few steps to snap a quick photo of the enlightened scene before me. After walking back out through the gate, I did a double-take as a boy was dressed head-to-toe in a red Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costume. I laughed, for two reasons. The first, is that a child actually had a Halloween costume, which is unusual given that Halloween is not celebrated in Grenada. The second reason being that exact red Ninja Turtle was what one of my nephews was for Halloween this year. It’s funny how things can come full circle like that.

After parting ways with Slade, I bought some barbecue and began the walk back to my apartment. Upon reaching the gap in the concrete wall to enter the park, I quickly ducked through to see if I could catch a view of the cemetery from the football stands. Bounding up the concrete stairs and reaching the top of the stands, I turned around.

It looked as if the hillside was on fire.

There is that old, cliché saying that, “You don’t know what you got til it’s gone.”

Well, I know what I got. I left them all behind in the States on Memorial Day weekend. But in six weeks’ time, I’ll be home to see them all again, albeit briefly, for the Christmas holiday.

Maybe I’ll even visit the cemetery to light a candle or two.

I can’t wait.

Cheers!

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