Nestled among the rolling hills of Western New York State lie a series of shimmering lakes known as the Finger Lakes, so named because they look like the five fingers of a had laying on the landscape. Geologists tell us that they were carved by ancient glaciers but local lore at the time preferred the more poetic Iriquois legend which attributed their creation to the imprint left on the land by the hand of the Great Spirit. This area is rich in history as well as great beauty.
Of the five, Canandaigua, a long, slender lake with rolling hills rising from either side, is the one nearest to my heart. My great-aunt Helen and her husband, my great-uncle Walt had a summer cottage along the eastern shore of the lake and spending Saturdays at the cottage with my family was a highlight of the summertime.
The city of Canandaigua lies about 35 miles southeast of Rochester. Today the trip between Canandaigua can be made in thirty minutes or less and Canandaigua, its lakefront cottages converted to year-round residences for commuters, has become one of Rochester's bedroom communities . But when I was a child the trip took considerably longer on the two lane country roads that wound through the farm country that separated the two cities. Interspersed among the farms were the towns and villages, many dating back to the Revolution, with their distinctive architecture and histories.
The return trip on Saturday evening also had a treat for us. Although fatigued from a day of swimming, climbing the apple tree behind the cottage and hiking up the narrow dirt road, lined with wild blackberry and raspberry bushes, that led up the hill above the lake, we always managed to stay awake as the car made its way back home. When we reached the residential part of Canandaigua's Main St. we eagerly looked out the windows on the right side of the car seeking a glimpse of the house with the candle in the window.
As young children born after World War II, both World War I and World War II seemed a part of the distant past. But, because all of the adults in our lives had lived through those two wars we had a connection to those eras. After all, my Father, two of my uncles and the fathers of most of my friends had fought in World War II. Two of my great-uncles, one of them being Uncle Walt, had served in France during World War I.
Of the two, World War I was the more prominent of the two in those days. With little more than a decade having elapsed since the end of World War II it was too close for much reflection. Besides, in those days my parents and others in their generation were young. World War II had interrupted their lives but now they were focused on making up time lost during the war so they concentrated on raising their families and advancing their careers.
The World War I generation, my grandparents' generation, was different. While they also had had their lives interrupted by that war, they had by then raised their families and were nearing the end of their careers. It was now time for them to reflect and reminisce on the events of their distant youth. In those days Memorial Day was still referred to as Decoration Day and the veterans' sections of cemeteries bloomed with American flags adorning the graves of those who had fallen in the wars. November 11th was still Armistice Day with church bells and sirens ringing out at 11 a.m. commemorating the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 when peace finally returned to a war weary nation and world. Veterans' groups sold red paper poppies to raise money to care for those whose wounds from the wars made them permanent residents of veteran's hospitals and homes. During the weeks preceding Memorial Day everyone sported a paper poppy in their lapels while teachers in school read John McCrae's immortal poem, In Flanders Fields, which forever linked the poppy with those who gave their lives in that war.
This is why we looked for the house with the candle in the window. For, among the thousands of young men from our part of the Empire state who set out for France in the second decade of the twentieth century with the slogan Lafayette here we come! on their lips, was the one who had grown up in that house. Along with prayers for his safe return, his parents lit candle and placed it in their front window each evening – a symbolic beacon to help him find his way home even in the dark of night. Nearly a half a century later, as we drove home from our Saturday outings, the candle still glowed brightly in the window of that home as that young man's aging parents continued the vigil that began with their son's departure. By then the candle had ceased to be a beacon lighting the way for the son's return and had become instead a symbol of a parents' love for a son who had given his life for his country. With that single candle glowing in the front window of their modest home, that young man's parents were able to keep alive the memory of their son and his sacrifice.
Of all the monuments and memorials that I have seen this is the one that has left the biggest impression. The story of the candle in the window was well known throughout the area and over the decades thousands of people saw it and were touched, if only for the moment by a family's undying love for a son who went off to war never to return.