When I was growing up in England, no one ever talked about needing candles. My mother had novelty candles shaped like apples and beehives – generally with unburned wicks – that nested on her Welsh pine dresser.
My favorite was brown and pillar-shaped, with a map of northern England etched onto its side. The candle belonged to Grandma first, but she never used it. Mum occasionally let me light it when my friend Lizzie Smith came to stay and we wanted to cook marshmallows.
Marshmallows taste much better toasted, Lizzie and I agreed. We speared the pink and white sugared cushions onto table forks and held them over the candle flame until the outsides turned into crispy shells and the insides were soft and gooey.
At university, my roommate and I bought squat candles to burn in the evenings as we gossiped over French essays half done. In the morning, as we scrambled to meet our deadlines, there were pools of dried wax congealed on the mantle.
Years later I find myself in Zimbabwe, where candles are a basic necessity. Power outages are frequent here. They can last several hours – or days.
I take precautions, of course. I lay sheets of old newspaper around the fridge to soak up the water that drips down from the freezer compartment. I make sure there's always a bag or two of ready-to-eat snacks – the most popular here are known as Zapnax – in case there's no power to cook supper.
And I stock up on candles. Sometimes, I slide my hand into the cupboard and pat my candle pile just to reassure myself that I've got enough, much as housewives in other times must have surveyed their stocks of homemade jellies and preserves ahead of a long cold winter.
My sister-in-law, Sophia, sent me a real luxury last Christmas from neighboring South Africa: 12 vanilla-scented candles.
Old books about South Africa tell of a quaint custom involving candles. It was called opsit, and it goes back many years to a time when descendants of the first Dutch families lived out on isolated farmsteads.
Sophia says that these days opsit means to "put up" or "put on" in Afrikaans, but back then it meant to "sit up."
According to this custom, young lovers were allowed to sit together in the evenings by candlelight. Usually it was at the home of the girl's parents – who didn't always permit the pair to talk. If a man asked a young woman to opsit with him, it was his way of declaring his interest in her.
If the woman wasn't sure about her suitor, she'd choose a short stub of a candle that would burn out quickly – since once the flame finally died, it was time for the man to saddle his horse and leave.
But if she liked him, she'd choose the longest taper she could find so that the couple got lots of time together.
I like to think of those shy couples, sitting stiffly in the flickering shadows, perhaps dreaming of a time when they'd have a sunlit kitchen of their own.
Now, when the lights go off for the umpteenth time, I say to myself: Don't sigh. Reach for your toddler's hand. Light the candles one by one. Let's all sit round the table.
After all, a lighted candle is a love story in progress.