My grandmother kept a red hurricane lamp on her fireplace mantle until the day she died. It was an old thing in a house full of old things, a piece of polished metal surrounded by wood-paneled walls, antique china, and furniture both too worn and too uncomfortable to sit on for any length of time. Her home was a time capsule of a life well lived, a testament to good days long passed as she climbed into her later years.
Though she lost the ability to keep her home in order, that old lantern looked as though it had never been used. She burned it every day in the early evening hours — a tradition, she said, that went back to her great grandmother, who brought it from the Old Country when she and her husband left for the coast. After fiddling with the regulator and allowing the kerosene to soak into the wick, she’d strike a match, lever up the glass chimney, and light the entire contraption.
I learned quickly that the lantern was more than just a family heirloom, that lightning it was more than just tradition. We huddled around that lantern in the dead of night when hurricanes struck the coast. As the rain buffeted against the windows and howled as it clawed at the shutters in the dead of night, the fire burning at the heart of that old lantern held steady in the face of our own uncertainty. It gave my grandmother a kind of strength, a steadfastness that manifested itself in those darkest hours. She cast her uncertainty and doubt upon that steady flame and drew from it the wisdom and willpower to endure the worst hardships cast upon her.
I know this, because she passed the lantern to me when she died.
They are separated now. My grandmother was returned to her family plot, back in the Old Country to rest with the rest of her kin. That hurricane lantern sits upon my fireplace mantle, looking as new and fresh as the day it came with her down to the coast. I light it each day, a tradition that goes back in my family for generations, and I keep it close during the darkest times.
But I do something that my grandmother never did.
Once a year, when I visit the Old Country, that lantern comes with me. At dusk, I light it and walk alone to the little plot of land that holds the spirit of my forebears. I find my grandmother’s headstone and set the lantern atop it for a while, that she might draw some resolve from it in her life beyond the grave.
Though I am not a believer in superstition, sometimes that steady flame flickers in the dead of night and I know that — for a while, at least — I am not alone.