I don’t know when I realized Mary was leaving on the lights. I probably woke up one morning, walked blithely into the kitchen and found the kitchen light still on. At first, I thought it was my fault. Perhaps, after my usual cup of tea at bedtime, I had absent-mindedly forgotten to turn it off.
Then one evening after we put aside our books, I saw Mary walk into the den and calmly switch on the lamp next to her grandmother’s old rocking chair. She stood there a moment and stared at the light with a half smile on her face. It was as if she were trying to absorb some of the glow. Then, she walked away and left it on.
I turned it off later. She didn’t seem to notice. The next night, she left the kitchen light burning. The night after that, as the stars reminded us of bedtime, she turned on the light in our daughter’s old bedroom and then turned away.
I began to follow her around at night. She didn’t have a set routine. For several nights in a row, she chose the kitchen light. Then, for no apparent reason, she would leave the living room light on, or the den light. We live in a small house, so there aren’t that many choices. In time, Mary turned on every light. Like a large, faithful dog, I padded behind her, waiting until she walked away, and then turned off the light. I didn’t want to interfere with her strange behavior, but we live on a small pension and social security; even a few more cents on the electric bill each month pinched.
Finally, one night, as Mary paused as usual and bathed in the light of the old lamp in the den, I came up beside her. I kissed her cheek as she leaned back against me. I tried to see into the light bulb, hoping to find in that dim sun the image that so entranced her. There was none. Finally, I asked the inevitable question: “Do you realize you are leaving lights on when you go to bed?”
“Yes,” she said in her gentle way. Mary rarely spoke loudly and there was always a hint of wonderment in her voice as though she were forever discovering something new.
“Is there a reason?” I continued softly.
She nestled her shoulder close to me and hooked her arm around my waist. Her slight body seemed even smaller than usual.
“It’s a family tradition,” she said without shifting her eyes from the light.
I stroked her arm. “I’m not surprised, considering your family. Is there a particular member of the family who started this lovely tradition?” I asked.
I could have guessed that: Aunt Freida, forever in my memory stalking across the room at our wedding with that enthusiastic expression on her face to embrace not me, but the champagne bottle on the table behind me. She was Mary’s mother’s younger sister, a worldly woman who bought and sold stocks, and enthusiastically endorsed every crank medical procedure trumpeted by every gossip magazine. For some reason, Mary felt very close to her aunt and was disconsolate for days after she died.
I couldn’t resist the obvious: “Why did Freida start leaving lights on? I thought she looked better in the dark.”
Mary held me tightly and sighed. “Aunt Freida started leaving lights on when she first accepted her own mortality.”
After that, it became almost a ritual. Mary would walk around the house in her irregular circuit, finally selecting a light switch. I would follow. We would stand together, sometimes touching, sometimes not. It did not matter. We would gaze into the light and look for meaning in the glowing filaments. I did not see anything, but my Mary was happy. That was what really mattered. She seemed to look forward to these moments when she could stare into the yellowish light and feel its excitement. The light seemed to reach out and touch her, giving her a shine and adding luster to her face. She was surrounded by it, immersed in it, caressed by it.
I loved seeing the expression on her face just before and after the light went on. She reached hesitantly toward the switch, as though expecting disappointment. Her eyes were downcast; her face, somber. Then, as the light exploded into the dark room, she would relax and joy would burst through her face. In time, we lived for that moment.
I’m a retired mailman. Once I stopped my regular route and stayed home, there wasn’t much for me to do. I used to take long walks out of habit, but started getting lost. It was embarrassing to show strangers the slip of paper my daughter made me carry; so, I stayed home. Mary was a school secretary. She retired first; then I followed. We played bridge with friends and went to concerts. But, after a while, we had only the lighting ceremony to look forward to.
Mary used to knit a lot. But her fingers started to ache, and she put away the needles. Still, the light was always there, always beckoning to us.
During the day, Mary would sit by the living room window and wait for the sun to pass into view. Sometimes, a neighbor boy mowed our lawn, and she would smile so endearingly when sunlight glinted off the mower.
Occasionally, we would catch ourselves looking into each other’s eyes. That was unusual. We didn’t do that much anymore.
Many times, I found myself wondering where the passion had gone. I would watch Mary, content in her chair, her brown hair neatly piled on her head, and think of our younger days together when her brown eyes would glimmer with exuberance when I came home from work. They were dull now. It wasn’t just age. She still excited me. Her face was the same, just older with a fine array of lines about her mouth, like a sunburst. Gray tinged her hair now, but only enhanced her appearance. Always small, her figure never more than a gentle hint, she grew lovelier as the years slipped by. The brightness showed from her lights was caught in her grays and browns, adding luster to her presence and bringing out the beauty in even shadowy grooves around her eyes. I held her now and then, we even made love. But Mary was tired and the enthusiasm had faded. The passion was gone with it.
Soon, she didn’t want to move from her chair very often. I placed it closer to the window. She rewarded me with a glorious smile. In the winter, I wrapped her in a shawl and blanket. I was sorry when she stopped combing her hair. It was long, lovely hair that once lay so gently on her shoulders. She used to fuss over it for hours. During one visit, our daughter cut it short. Mary didn’t seem to mind.
I brought her meals, carried her to the bathroom. At night, after giving her a bath and putting her to bed, I would solemnly walk around the house and announce which light I was turning on. I know Mary was pleased. I usually tiptoed back to bed to find her asleep, a warm, loving smile on her face.
Our daughter came over once a week and grew more upset with each visit. I couldn’t talk to her after awhile. She wouldn’t listen anyway, but badgered me to take Mary to a doctor. In time, I gave in. Our daughter brought her son, a strapping young man, to carry Mary. I watched my wife carried across our threshold in the arms of another man.
The doctor later took me aside. He talked quietly and softly. He said Mary needed help. She had to stay in the hospital. I tried to protest, but he just patted my arm and nodded. Our daughter hugged me. Her husband hugged me. Their son hugged me. There was no one to hug Mary.
She went to a small nursing home not that far from our house. I would see her when my daughter could bring me. Mary seemed happy, but annoyed the nurses. She kept pulling the nurses’ cord thinking it was the light switch. Then she would gaze up at the light with a puzzled look on her face. The nurses finally left the light on, which didn’t make her happy either.
I would turn the light off and on for her repeatedly. Mary wanted to see the process, to enjoy the burst of light inside the bulb. Neon isn’t as expressive as electricity, but I am sure Mary could see the gasses get excited and know they were erupting into light just for her.
We buried her on a cool September day as the sun groped toward the center of the sky. It had never been brighter. We stood around the grave in our overcoats and felt it shining down on us. I didn’t say anything, but I know why the sun was so vibrant. I looked toward the sky as the sun petted my face. There was the passion! It was in the bright rays and love that flowed toward me. I could feel the energy surging in the air, feel its great explosion of wonder as it filled my body and burst into my head. Not for years had Mary been so much a part of my being, with me standing on grass sprinkled with reflected light and a dark, somber pit just a few feet away.
Our daughter wanted me to live with her. I couldn’t. My house – our house – still meant too much to me. I went home. My daughter and her husband came, too, but I wanted to be alone. The lights were on. My daughter, dressed in black and looking like a shadow, carefully turned them all off. She talked. I listened to show some interest. She was trying to be nice. Finally, I heard only the dull hum of her voice and retreated from the spreading night. She gave up and pecked my cheek. My daughter was crying. Her face seemed to match her clothing.
In the silence, after their car drove away and the echo faded, I stood by the mantel piece and looked at the pictures there of my daughter, her husband and their two children. I think they have two. I have forgotten. I’ve forgotten a lot of things. I should know my daughter’s name, but I can’t recall it either.
Finally, as night arrived, I walked into the kitchen and found the light switch. Slowly, feeling more alive than ever, I turned on a light for Mary.
Then, I went into the den and turned on the lamp for me.Bill Lazarus is a long-time writer, educator and religious historian. He started teaching when he was 13 year old and has been rarely out of a classroom since. He holds an M.A. in communication from Kent State University and is a full-time instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. His books are available via Kindle.com, Amazon.com or on his website www.williamplazarus.com .