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There are two types of churches in Italy: the kind that have plastic, sham, charlatan candles, and the kind that have real, waxy candles with thick black wicks. I spent half of my five-week trip to Italy searching for genuine candles, the kind that feel smooth and solid in your hand, like holding part of the actual weight of a soul, only to walk into some of the world’s most important churches – Saint Francis of Assisi’s Basilica and the Duomo in Florence – to hold some battery-powered impersonation. I must admit I wanted to turn my nose up at the knock-off candle, ignore it, move on, and sneer at the spuriousness of it, but I still donated the euro, still plugged that false candle into its electrical slot, still prayed to God for my deceased Grandmother, only to come up short from the visions and memories of her that I so desired.
My grandmother, my mother’s mother, Tedine Greenwald, was a Cajun queen and a vision of Southern excellence. Traditional to a T, she adorned pearl earrings (clip-ons only, it was a sin to maul the body), lived on the back of a golf course, belonged to the Country Club attached to it, married young and taught Geography at the local high school in Crowley, Louisiana, cooked a homemade dinner for her family every night, and sang swing songs from the sixties in the kitchen while she baked. She was a good, Catholic woman, married to a good, Jewish man. She loved to travel to foreign places, indulge in luxurious, worldly cuisines, and explore historical monuments, always searching for a place where she could see God’s great works in person. To her, man-made beauty was just as important as natural beauty, as all of it was a sign of God in her life. Her Jewish husband, my grandfather, was as good a man as she was a woman, and followed her dutifully into every church, museum, palace, or nature preserve, noting on the artistic value of sculptures and architecture.
Whenever they returned home from another one of their extravagant, romantic, and elegant trips, they always sat my sister and me on their laps and told us about their favourite places: Notre Dame in Paris, the Duomo in Florence, the Basilica in Barcelona – all churches. From this, I learned that religion can never interrupt beauty, whether Catholic or Jewish, you can always appreciate art for being art. My grandmother just especially loved how connected it made her feel to God. Walking into these cathedrals in Italy, I searched for a connection to my Grandmother. Tedine, or Teddy Jean, or even T.J, as she was known to friends. She was a proud woman, standing at four foot eleven (just like me), the only woman in the family to have musical talent (just like me), a fantastic baker (just like me), and kind to a fault (just like me). She passed away seven years ago, buried in a Catholic graveyard, blessed by a priest for all her good deeds on earth. I’d always dreamt of more time with her, time for her to be proud of the woman I’d become, instead of the sniveling, sensitive young teen I was when she knew me best. Italy was her favourite country; Florence, her favourite city. Cathedrals were her favourite thing to visit, and she’d always light a candle in memoriam of her deceased mother. I’d hoped that by visiting the places she loved most, lighting candles in her honour, I’d find some semblance of a memory of her.
I was spending a month in Spoleto, Italy, studying creative writing and modern representations of medieval times, visiting other ancient cities on the weekends for an immersive, inclusive, artistic experience. In Spoleto, in the first few days, we embarked upon a walking tour of the city that led us to the main Basilica, only to be sped through without a moment to look for candles to light for her. We made our way through central Italian mountain towns, Gubbio, Assisi, only to find that the candles there were as plastic as the Barbie toys she’d given me to play with when I was younger. I’d walk into these magnificent cathedrals, plagued by visions of her, only to have them extinguish under artificial light. I would plug in one of these imposter candles, cold and hollow in my palm, into a designated slot and watch the battery power up the little dot of lustrous electricity. If I focused on this glow enough, I could see her, sitting by the Meyer lemon tree, on a wrought iron chair, the French style: winds and twists of metal in fleur de lis and spirals, rosettes and diamonds, on a pale stone patio, her hands folded peacefully in her lap. She would smile and call me forward, a child to sit in her lap. This image was only found in the luminosity of a Romanesque candle, extinguished when the battery ran out. Maybe real candles are too dangerous for the frescos in the Capellas, or too expensive for the piety of the Church. My visions seem more of an imaginative exercise and less of a concrete memory in the artificial luminescence of battery-powered plastic candle, like a Meyer lemon grown in a lab, chemicals and pesticides, not like the kind in my grandmother’s garden.
Every cathedral holds a tomb for her final resting place in my mind. Every basilica a step closer to Heaven, to finding that good Catholic woman’s graces and spirit. Every candle I switch on an attempt to light a memory of her. How can I reach the dead after death? How do I become closer to my blood, the blood of mine which has already left this bodily earth? I can’t touch the soft, freckled body of my grandmother anymore; I haven’t touched her in seven years. I can only attempt to recreate the glow of her soul, this desire sprung through these on-off switches of candles. I want more than the earthly remnants of the traditions she’s left behind. I can plug in a million candles, and never have enough memory of her. I can go to Cathedrals all across Italy, slide them into a designated slot, but electricity doesn’t run up to Heaven. I assumed the problem was the artificiality of the candles, that if I had a real candle with a real flame, one that produced warmth and happiness, I could somehow summon my grandmother – maybe through a flood of forgotten memories, or even that I could interact with her heavenly presence. I thought that a real flame would serve as a gateway and she would come through to me.
I finally found a real wax candle for her in Ravenna, at the Chapel of Saint Andrea. A city she’d never been to while she lived, yet the kind she would have adored, filled with history and meaning and beautiful mosaics from the 500s AD. The church was grand, expansive, rebuilt in the 1700s after a failed restoration attempt left it crumbling, so it wasn’t as baroque or gothic as other medieval churches I’d seen in Italy. It was larger, more grandiose, with huge marble pillars, ample amount of light, with capellas dedicated to more modern popes and saints. It didn’t smell musty and dark as the older ones did, but cleaner, brighter, crisper, almost floral, like a banquet hall in a palace lined with fresh daisies. Upon walking through huge wooden doors, I gasped, zoning in on the tiny, wobbling flames in the distance. I walked all around the massive church, finding the perfect altar to summon Tedine. I prayed sacred prayers, watching them float up to Heaven in the lucid, transparent smoke.
She was never made more real to me. I still cried at night. I did all the right things in my quest for her – I came to Italy. I ate her food. I drank her wine. Did what she would have loved. Lit candles to her memory, beckoning her spirit back from Heaven. I listened to other’s ridicule. I engaged in their celestial debates, asking “is Heaven even real?” and “Does God even exist?”. I stood idly by while they jested at Holy altars. Shrank at their sneers when I plugged in the plastic candles for her. Observed silently as they laughed at praying nuns, called out the hypocrisy of the church, and turned their eyes away from images of Jesus. I said nothing, just silently prayed to Tedine. I don’t care if they don’t believe that I can reach her, reach God, reach anybody after we die. Science is often proved wrong. We are more than dust floating endlessly in a never-ending universe. Matter cannot be created or destroyed, after all.
And in Ravenna, when I paid that one-euro coin for a real, wax candle for her, held it to a flame, and carefully placed it in front of Mary Magdalene’s image, still she sat in front of the lemon tree – a memory. I wanted her presently, I wanted her in front of me, I wanted divine presence preaching love – Saint Tedine, are you out there?
Some miracles are harder to spot than others.
To be a saint, you have to have lived a Godly life, been loved by all, and performed miracles before and after death. Theodora, my all-time favorite historical figure, who I’d come to Ravenna to see her holy mosaic, was never officially named a saint. In her mosaic, she was depicted with a halo, which was sacrilegious since she wasn’t (and still isn’t) a saint. Her people just loved her so, so much. But apparently instilling religious freedom throughout your entire empire and starting the first ever shelter for abused women and children isn’t a miracle, just an act of goodness. Theodora was a woman I always connected to, since hearing about her in my eighth grade history class. She was a young girl in the Byzantine empire, an “actress” (she was a nude dancer). She caught the eye of the emperor, Justinian, and charmed her way into his heart. Her wisdom was recognized instantly by him, and she sat on the head of his advisory council. She wasn’t just a pretty face – she was powerful, inspiring, and dedicated to improving the lives of people in her empire, especially women. My friends and I even formed a girl band named “Theodora”, to recognize her supreme girl-power-ness. My trip to Ravenna was more of a pilgrimage, a religious experience to see the portrait of this non-saint. Her image was glorious, divine, sanctified, and moving. This byzantine woman, adored by all, was adorned in colorful stones – tawny, ember, shamrock green, and dandelion gold. She was embellished with a highly decorated cape, wearing a beaded headpiece, golden slippers, and a bejeweled collar. And, she had the halo, the recognition of her miracles, whether the Catholic Church saw it that way or not, her people did. I saw her that way as well – I left the basilica with salty, wet tears streaking through my makeup, wiping at them frivolously, awestruck.
Tedine may not be a Saint according to the Catholic Church either, but she is in my eyes. She was the best Catholic I’d ever known. She’s the reason I have a medal of St. Christopher in my car, even though I’m not actually a practicing Catholic. Everyone who ever met her loved her. To me, her life alone was a miracle, the family she created, my family, was a miracle. And after death, she inspires me every day to be a woman who she would be proud of, instead of the mediocre thing I was before her death. Isn’t that a miracle? Isn’t her impact alone a miracle? I wanted Saint Tedine to perform another miracle, to come to me after her death. I saw her once: three summers after she died. Tedine was an artist, several of her pieces hang on the wall of the study in my house. I was staring at one, a still life, a pastel-painted vase of flowers, violets and pink peonies and pale baby’s breath. The room caved inwards, the walls surrounding the painted turned plain and white, and the painting shone with the kind of divine rays of sunlight that depict Jesus in paintings. The room felt warm – like the flame of a candle. I found her here, in her artwork, and I haven’t stopped looking for this feeling, this otherworldly visitation by her spirit.
I don’t understand how to find her. Not in Florence, her favorite place in the world, or Ravenna, the city she would have loved more than Florence had she ever got a chance to visit, or in Crowley, her hometown, or in the pictures of her or the pictures of the Saints she gave to me. I chase the memory of Tedine across the globe, donating coin to her, lighting candles for her, only to come up short in visions of her. Every day, I live for her memory, trying to accomplish what she would have been proud of. I know she’d be proud of where I am now, I’ve become more of the kind, caring, intelligent, and strong woman that my grandmother was. I become more like her, and I seek her closeness as I find more of her in myself.
My grandmother loved to read. I wonder if they read essays in Heaven.