Only the memories remain

By Arne Vainio, M.D.
News From Indian Country

My brother has been making ice candles ever since the weather turned cold. Every night he starts new candles by filling buckets with water and leaving them on the deck to freeze. In the morning, the outer shell is frozen and he drills holes in the top and pours off the water inside into another bucket. Then he brings it in the house and lets it sit for a few minutes so the bucket releases the ice. He drills around the top edge and carefully knocks out the center and we put a single candle inside. The candles are spectacular and he can make frosted candles by using the cold water from the last candle or clear candles by using warm water.

Every Christmas Eve Ivy and Jake and I drive well over 200 miles to put ice candles on my Finnish grandmother’s grave and on my father’s grave. Every year the weather has been extremely cold on Christmas Eve and the cemeteries are so far from the city that the stars are the brightest of the year. Some years our candles are the only ones and other years there have been as many as six candles glowing in the snow when we got there.

Christmas was my grandmother’s favorite time of year and she always had a big tree with lots of ornaments and lots of tinsel. She would spend the entire year making hats and mittens and socks for her seven grandchildren and she would weave her long white hair in with the yarn as she went. The presents would be under the tree for weeks before Christmas and we would be in the small living room looking at the tags and the red and green shiny ribbons around the packages. It never occurred to me until years after her death that the ribbons were the ribbons from the last year and the boxes and most of the wrapping paper were the same. We would tear open the packages on Christmas Day and she would be in the corner, smiling and quietly collecting the paper and ribbons and the nametags and carefully folding everything and putting it back into boxes.

She cooked on an ancient black cast iron Monarch cook stove and there was a big square whitewashed wood box on the patterned linoleum floor next to the stove.  She would feed pine firewood cut from sawmill slabs into the stove and I used to hide behind the stove when I was small and I could see the flames through the draft on the side. She would get up early in the morning to start getting the turkey ready and she peeled potatoes from the root cellar under the house and had canned blueberries and pickles she made during the summer and fall. Her kitchen was warm and bright and the smell of the turkey and her fresh baked bread and coffee met us at the front door. She was on constant patrol with a bowl of mashed potatoes and when any of us kids finished something, she would immediately put more on the plate and we had to finish eating before we could open presents. She barely spoke English, but we understood her well.

When I became a teenager and started driving, I didn’t see her as often as I used to. I never brought my friends to see her because of her broken English and the simple way they lived. I was disappointed because I got hats and mittens and socks for Christmas.

We’ve made it a tradition to stop and see Leonard and Norma Ojala on Christmas Eve on the way to the cemetery and we would bring them an ice candle and leave it glowing on their deck. Leonard was the temporary high school counselor when I was in the 11th or 12th grade. He and Norma drove me to the University of Minnesota, Duluth and told me I could go there after my regular counselor told me I wasn’t college material.

Leonard died this past summer and Norma can’t be at home by herself anymore. Last year we had a nice visit with them and got to the first cemetery late. My brother Kelly lived less than a quarter mile from the cemetery and the year before he met us there. Our older sister Shelly was dying in the intensive care unit in Duluth as we stood together as grandsons in the freezing wind and at that moment she only had a few weeks left. The deep snow by the graves was difficult for him due to the stroke he’d had when he was 46 and last year I called him and he didn’t think he could make it. Ivy and Jake and I put the candles out under a brilliant starry sky with only the sound of the wind in the tall pines around the cemetery. Instead of stopping to see Kelly, I honked the horn as we flew past on our way to the cemetery where our father is buried.

He died in his sleep three days later and I never got a chance to say goodbye.

The weather has been warm for December and the ice candles are melting. My brother Scott and I delivered twelve of them for the 2015 AICHO (American Indian Community Housing Organization) Calendar Launch Party last night. My wife Ivy takes the photographs for the calendar and the proceeds directly benefit programs to help struggling families get back on their feet. The sidewalk in front of Trepanier Hall was softly illuminated by the candles in the foggy December night and the lights and the sounds of the city were muted by the fog. We also delivered two candles to a friend of mine who really didn’t know what to expect and we left them glowing softly on her front porch and that’s what she came home to. She texted me a message telling me she loved them.

I don’t normally make house calls as I really don’t have the equipment I need to do anything useful and the days of the doctor showing up with a little black bag are long gone. Earlier this week I sat with a patient and his family in his small apartment and he told me about his favorite fishing trip and how he used to go there with his father when he was young. Now his cancer is in its final stages and he can’t eat and he can’t swallow and he’s too weak to come to the clinic. The home hospice nurses have been taking care of him and his pain and his nausea are controlled. I sat in an easy chair next to his and they showed me pictures and we talked and visited. He was leaned back in his chair with a plaid wool blanket from his neck to his feet and he told me of his plans for that fishing trip for his children and his grandchildren. He wants to get the details right because he knows he won’t be going with them. His father’s ashes are scattered on an island where they fished together and he wants to make sure they can find that same island so he can be with his father. I listened to his heart and his lungs and I checked his pulse and reviewed his medicines. I will do everything I can for him, but there is nothing I can do to change his outcome.

I don’t know if the weather will allow making more ice candles by Christmas. We’ll make our journey regardless and we won’t stop to see Leonard and Norma and we won’t be able to see my brother. The ice candles on the deck are almost completely melted. The candles we dropped off at my friend’s house were gone this morning. The twelve candles on the sidewalk in downtown Duluth are gone.

Only the memories remain.

Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
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