The Candle in the Window
A Candle is Placed in the Front Window Awaiting a Soldier Son's Return
As Veterans Day and Memorial Day, the two days we honor those who left their homes to fight to defend our nation and freedoms against foreign foes, we pause to remember those who died defending us.
On a tree lined street in Canandaigua, New York is a stately home from which, according to local tradition, a son left to fight in World War I. As he departed his mother lit a candle in the front window to welcome him on his return.
The son never returned and, to this day, the glowing candle has continued its silent vigil awaiting the return of that long ago soldier.
Canandaigua Home with Candle Still Glowing in the Window
Candle as A Welcoming Beacon
From earliest times to the present home has always been more than a simple shelter from the elements. Home also represents family and loved ones as well as a place where its members are always welcome. What could be more welcoming to a weary traveler on a dark night than a light glowing in a window? Like a beacon, the light guides the traveler through the inky darkness toward the warmth and safety of the home.
Even when the destination is well known to the traveler and the light not needed as a guide, we still find ourselves leaving a light on before retiring as a welcoming beacon for the teenage child out with the car or a spouse working late. While it serves no purpose as a navigation beacon, the light, shining in the otherwise darkened home, greets the late arrival and conveys, for the now sleeping parent or spouse, their love for the traveler and joy that they have arrived safely.
In times past, when communication with loved ones who were away on a long trip was slow to non-existent, a candle left burning in the window became a symbol to the traveler that the loved ones at home eagerly awaited the return of the traveling member. When the trip involved going off to war, a mother or wife would often place a lighted candle in the front window and, as she kissed her son or husband good-by, would point to the candle and remind him that she would keep it lit awaiting his return.
A Young Man Goes Off To War
While not a common custom any more, there is still one home that I know of where a candle glows in the front window waiting to welcome the return of a soldier gone off to war.
Oh, it's not the current war in Iraq or Afghanastan or the one before this one or even the one before that one. No, some nine decades ago a mother lit a candle in the window and kissed her son good-by.
At that time, in the small rural city known as Canandaigua, nestled in the rolling hills of central New York state where they lived, this was not uncommon and there were probably many candles burning in front windows in Canandaigua and other cities and towns throughout North America as sons headed off to Europe to fight in what became known to Americans as World War I and as the Great War to others.
Like many young men who went off to fight that war, this young man never returned. But while the candles burning for others who never returned were eventually extinguished, this one continued to burn and to to his day the candle, now an electric one, continues to shine 24/7 in the front window of the home on the corner of Fort Hill and N. Main Streets in Canandaigua, New York.
Today's electric candle still glows in the same window where the original candle was placed by the soldier's mother some nine decades ago. While the mother who placed the candle there has passed on and the home has apparently been sold one or more times, the candle continues to glow.
House Located at Corner of Main St. and Ft. Hill Drive in Canandaigua, NY
When I was a child my great-aunt and uncle, who was a veteran of World War I himself, had a cottage on Canandaigua Lake which we frequently visited on weekends in the summer. The trip between our home in nearby Rochester to the cottage always took us through the city of Canandaigua.
On our return in the evening it was usually dark and my siblings and I would always look for the house with the candle in the window. It was usually easy to spot the glowing candle, which even then was electric, as we drove past on the dimly lit street.
My aunt and uncle had told us the story of the mother vowing to keep the candle lit until her son returned and had kept that vow. My Mother remembered the candle and the story from her childhood trips to the lake cottage. The local historian/author Arch Merrill also mentioned the home in one or more of his area histories but I don't recall him revealing much more than I have revealed here.
Over the years, the story has stayed with me both as a shining example of love as well as a desire to learn more about this family.
On a trip east a year ago I decided to try to find the house and take a picture of it even though the candle was probably long gone. Since it had always been dark when we looked for the candle all I remembered was that the home was on the east side of Main Street in the city.
Canandaigua NY Home with Candle Still Glowing in Window in Memory of a Son Lost Decades Ago
Stopping at a tourist information center on Main Street I asked about the home. The clerk at the counter didn't know what I was talking about, but another woman did recall the story and told me that it was in the vicinity of Ft. Hill Ave. and that she thought that successive owners had kept the candle in the window.
Driving up to Ft. Hill Ave. I discovered that the house sat right on the corner of Ft. Hill and N. Main St. and, yes, the candle still glowed in the window to the right of the front door.
Unlike the more common bungalow type homes that dominate North Main St. as it leads out of the city, this home is a stately mansion set amongst other similar elegant old homes in that small area of the city. The candle still glowed in the window, but that lit candle was the only indication that the history of this structure was different.
The house is obviously still a private home with no sign or other marker noting its connection to that long ago soldier.
Seeking more information, I visited the Wood Library a few blocks away but neither the young librarian I spoke with nor the catalog yielded any information about the home or its past. Repeated Google searches indicate that this story has not reached the Internet or, if it has, it doesn't contain any of the keywords I have tried.
So I am still left with questions and speculations. Looking at the home, it is obvious that this young soldier came from a well to do local family.
Was he drafted in to the Army by the then newly created Selective Service System or did he enlist? My guess is, given the times and his class, that he volunteered as the pending war was a popular cause especially among the educated and upper class youth. The young men of this era eagerly stepped forward to join the military while their female counterparts went overseas with organizations like the Red Cross and YMCA where they served supporting roles at the front.
More than likely, his education and social position probably resulted in his becoming an officer. Patriotism was probably one of his major motivations for joining. But there were probably other forces as well such as the desire to be a part of what promised to be the defining moment for his generation as well as dreams of glory on the battlefield and the prospect of admiring young women being be drawn to a dashing hero in uniform.
Whatever this soldier's position and motivations were, we know from the still glowing candle that he did not survive the war.
However, questions remain. Was he returned to Canandaigua in a coffin or does he occupy one of the thousands of graves in one of the many American military cemeteries in Europe? Sad as this would be, a marked and known grave somewhere in the world would have at least brought closure to his family and a reason to extinguish the candle.
More than likely, the candle still glows because he was among the missing. There were thousands of young men who went off to war and never returned fit, wounded or dead. Many of these men lie in American military cemeteries, in the U.S. or Europe, with markers bearing the name Unknown but to God. Worse still, he may be lying in an unmarked and forgotten grave somewhere in Europe.
Society immortalizes and remembers some of its war heroes in story, song and/or physical monuments.
In the poet Homer's poem The Iliad some of the great heroes of the Trojan War - Achilles, Hector, etc. have been preserved for us. Similarly the Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere was immortalized in the poet Longfellow's poem The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.
In Canandaigua, New York a soldier who never returned from World War I continues to be remembered thanks to the continuing glow of a candle first placed in a window by his mother almost a century ago.
Further Research Reveals a Surprising Twist on This Story
This Hub is based upon stories I heard from my parents who grew up in Western New York State and from my great aunt and uncle who had had a summer cottage along Canandaigua since the 1930s.
The story of the candle still burning in memory of a missing World War I soldier also appeared in occasional newspaper articles and books, such as Land of the Senecas by the respected local historian and journalist, Arch Merrill (1894-1974).
One thing that always intrigued me was the fact that the name of the soldier was never mentioned even in the published accounts of the story. It should have been easy to find the soldier's given that he grew up in an elegant mansion in a small city. He was obviously the son of one of the city's leading families yet in all of the accounts about the son for whom the candle still glows all we know about this nameless individual is that he was a soldier (or aviator in some cases) who went off to fight in World War I and never returned.
Recently, after searching for years, I came across the name of the young man whose Mother placed the candle in the window to await his safe return.
While the young man for whom the candle glows, was just a child at the time of World War I, he did have two older step-brothers who served in that war - one as a soldier and one as a naval aviator. He also had a younger brother who served as a soldier in World War II.
Click here for the interesting and tragic story of Jack Garlock, the 22 year old budding aviator whose fiery death in a 1927 bi-plane crash is the reason his mother left the candle, which she had placed in the window a couple of days earlier for his safe return, remains glowing in that window today.
© 2007 Chuck Nugent