I was in Shop-Rite, a grocery store in Dover, New Jersey, a town known for its dense Puerto Rican population. I went to the aisle where they sell Spanish foods, looking for religious candles. I didn’t want them for any ritual purpose; I thought they would work well in the cabin we had rented for skiing in Vermont. We had just returned from the cabin where we’d used up all of the candles, and in the process had dripped wax all over the coffee table. I figured I’d stock up on these inexpensive, slow and clean burning candles. Novenas, I think they’re called.
I found them on a shelf that had a rolling ladder in front of it. A diminutive Puerto Rican woman of about 50 years stood on the ladder. She was holding a large, reddish candle in its glass.
As I approached to choose a suitable size and color for our cabin, I overheard her say to a younger woman at the foot of the ladder, “These are not red. These are dark pink.” Since it was the first week of December, I assumed she was looking for candles for Christmas, and she was not satisfied with this shape of red. It didn’t look Christmas-y to me, either.
I chose smaller, dark green ones, and, at $.59 each, I took four. As I began to walk away, the older woman said to the younger one, “You see, she believes, too. She took the morning ones.” I smiled at her and nodded my head, like a foreigner who doesn’t understand English. Then I said, “Yeah, morning ones.” I put the candles in my cart and continued walking. The woman repeated “Morning, morning,” as if I actually had not understood what she’d said. I rolled my cart down and out of the aisle.
Suddenly it occurred to me that perhaps she’d said “mourning”; not “morning”. I ran down the list of things I might be in mourning for: the recent death of my grandmother, my recurrent pregnancy losses, friends who had moved away. I thought I had gotten over all of that. “What were the red ones for?” I wondered.
I finished my shopping, satisfied that I’d stocked up on functional candles for our cabin. I felt a little guilty about not revealing what I planned to do with my novenas to the faithful Puerto Rican woman who had tried to impress the younger woman with the fact that perhaps I believed in this ritual, too.
I felt the familiar twinge of envy I often feel when I see a religious person who has put energy into their faith and is encouraged by the outcome. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” I thought, “if buying candles of specific colors for specific problems, and then praying a certain way, could bring some peace of mind when we’re struggling with life’s challenges?”
This and similar practices have been repeated by countless civilizations for thousands of years. People obviously get something out of this, as evidenced by the repeat business in the religious candle industry. People keep coming back for more. I’m a little envious of what they’re getting, even though I’m not really sure what it is.
I wrote this story in 1995 as an assignment for a class I was taking at NYU called “The Art of the Personal Essay.” I was 32 years old and had lost three early pregnancies. I later had two healthy baby boys. Maybe the novenas really had some power.