Saturday Nights with Paraffin

In which no one is hurt except a pilgrim, and we make wax hands.

I grew up the youngest of three in mid-century, Midwest, suburban America. It was what I would call a functional family. On weeknights we gathered for dinner at the kitchen table; on Sundays we kids were allowed to eat our hamburgers, carrot sticks, and potato chips in front of the TV watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlon Perkins and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World; and on Saturday nights, we gathered in the dining room. My dad would grill a steak and my mom would bake potatoes, prepare some kind of vegetable, and fix small salads of iceberg lettuce with a vinegar and oil dressing. The dining room table, of sleek Danish design, was laid with a cloth, usually green, and everyday dishes. I would like to say that one of us girls willingly helped Mom set the table, but that would be stretching it. Always on the table were two candles, a pair of tapers, in unassuming brass holders. The candles also were usually green, though sometimes white or ivory and occasionally some other color, but always of paraffin, and I did enjoy the ceremony of lighting the candles after the table was set and just before my dad brought in the steak. At the same time someone would be choosing the dinner music, and then, as the candles flickered to life and the first scratches came through the hi-fi speakers, we would pause. Was it South Pacific? Camelot? High Spirits? As the overture revealed its course, someone would name the musical and thus Saturday night dinner began.

My dad served from his spot at the head of the table: a slice of meat, a baked potato, whatever vegetable lay in wait. Plates would be passed, the first going to me, on my dad’s right, my eldest sister an intermediary. The second plate went to my dad’s left, to the middle sister. Then back to his right, to the eldest. And I wonder now: What is all this squabbling about? For a whining, moaning, teasing noise cuts over the years, reverberating in my head like an ancient riff.
I am refusing the vegetable and my mother is urging me to try it, assuring me that it is “sweet as candy.” Peas in particular are “sweet as candy.” I think peas are yukky, though not nearly as bad as Lima beans. The middle sister is telling a joke or maybe launching into a story. The eldest sister has curlers in her hair and would like to be elsewhere, truly, anywhere, elsewhere, and don’t we know it.
My father carried on, serving each of us in turn, asking if we would like this or that rather than just doling it out, and when it was my mother’s turn he would ask, quite clearly: “Marion, would you like some peas?” And with great animation my mother would respond: “Why yes, Dick, thank you! I would love some peas. They are so sweet—just like candy!”

With our plates before us we would say grace, then eat. We were to mind our manners, have polite conversation. Instead, we tried to make each other laugh. We especially tried to make our father laugh. The middle sister had a knack for this. A simple story of just another day in the seventh or eighth grade and Dad was in stitches, falling off his chair, which relieved the pressure on me to eat vegetables and allowed the eldest to slip away if she so pleased. Politics and issues of the day were rare topics, though as we got older, things such as Vietnam and Tricky Dick Nixon and marijuana and racism all made it to the table, sometimes with the help of company, but sometimes not.

After dinner, the table was cleared by one of us girls, and this chore was never bemoaned as it was the lead-in to dessert, most likely a bowl of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce. About this time, our interest in the candles became too much to bear; it was time to experiment. How slowly could one put a finger through the flame? What happens if you hold a spoon this close? How about this close? And how about we push at that little lip of wax around the melted pool of wax … No, we were not to play with the candles, and yet at Saturday night dinner we did. But only with the tapers. At holiday time there were other candles on the table, such as the little 15-cent-each pilgrim boys and girls, the turkey, the Mayflower, all made of paraffin, but never lit and never to be lit, not under any circumstance. One of my darkest memories is of threatening to burn a cherubic pilgrim, taunting my mother with it; but what I do not remember is if I am the one holding the wick close to the taper’s flame or if it is my sister doing so. Certainly by this time we were both teenagers, and all I know is that one of us was threatening to light the little pilgrim on fire while the other watched, daring it to happen, and I wonder: Was there a quick flame and curl of smoke? Was the pilgrim hastily blown out? Did we realize in a flash the line we had crossed?

Once dinner and dessert were over, someone would blow out the candles. They would be good to go another time. When the candles became stubs, my mother replaced them, saving the stubs in a plastic bag kept in a drawer. Just before Halloween, my sisters and I would take them out, butter our hands, one hand each, and light one stub after another, letting them drip on the buttered hand until a wax glove had built up, a glove thick enough to be slipped off without cracking. A bumpy wax hand was a pretty cool thing to have at Halloween, especially if there had been a red candle in the mix. Some stubs, of course, had to be saved for our Jack O’Lanterns. Over at the drugstore we would get wax lips, wax Dracula fangs, and wax fingertips with long witchy nails that I bit and chewed.

Now how is it that nobody died or got sick from all that paraffin? And why was there no black soot build-up on the walls, the curtains, the carpet? I mean, who knew paraffin was toxic? Was responsible for all these terrible things? Who knew? And is paraffin really poisonous? I mean, really truly a poison? I admit, the fact that nobody in my household or the house itself suffered any ill effects from decades of paraffin use is merely anecdotal. So why not look at some science? Why not look at some emission studies?

Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more?
Herman Melville, Moby Dick

This page updated, split off from Paraffin, 2/4/19. (The day of the ice storm.)

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