Opening The Altar

In 1992, 25 years ago, half my life ago, Traca and I bought an antique votive holder. The Catholic Church has used these little alters for centuries, allowing the faithful to buy a candle and light it for a loved one or some other prayer-worthy cause. We saw this particular relic in an antique store down in Wells, Maine and thought it would provide some beautiful light in our living room.

We were broke back then, and the seller wanted something like $500 which was WAY too much. So we left empty handed. Still…we kept thinking about it, and eventually we went back. This time we met the seller’s husband who hated the thing. For $100 he let us pack it into our car and take it home. We were thrilled.

At the time, it was a big deal for us. It was by far the most expensive useless thing we had ever purchased together, and it felt like we were building a home. We were preparing for the birth of our first child, ready to be parents, and hey, look at us…we were buying decorations. If felt like being adults.

Over the years, this votive holder has been a bright witness to countless celebrations in our family. It has bathed us in romantic light when we needed that, and illuminated our sorrows when sorrows came. It has helped light up both our prayers and our parties. And until today, it has held a secret that I have often wondered about.

One night, in October of 2001, shortly after the September 11 tragedy, we had a party at our new house. We’d just gotten back from a year living in Portugal and so we invited some good friends over for dinner. I’m not sure how it happened but at some point in that evening, we started a little tradition. We encouraged our guests to write notes on scraps of paper and put them in the coin slot of the candle altar. We thought of it like a time capsule. Some day when we were old and grey, we’d open the lock box and relive the past.

In my memory, we wrote notes a lot. In parties over the years, I could picture small slips of folded paper disappearing into the offering box, and I imagined the box was full of mystery, of memory. Like all treasure, it was just waiting to be discovered.

After Traca and I divorced in 2012, the votive holder went to our friend Donna. Neither of us wanted it. As a long-standing Catholic, Donna loved the piece and we were happy for her to have it. It now sits in her kitchen and shines its light on her family’s sorrows and celebrations.

As fate would have it, I’ve been staying with Donna for a bit while I’m back here in Maine, and the votive holder calls to me every time I see it. Open me, it says. It’s time.

So today, I took the base to a local hardware store and told them this story. Like fellow treasure hunters, they were eager to open the box and in no time, with a bit of force, the past came tumbling out.

Turns out…there were only 8 notes in the box with two separate dates. One: October 8th, 2001. The other over a year later: December 22, 2oo2.  All the notes were written by children. Three came from my son Logan. There was also $2.62 inside. Not exactly a bonanza.

Here’s what I found:

We missed it by 49 years, but thanks for the early good wishes, Ryan.

Connor hoped for peace…though I think he got the date wrong.

Jon’s Jack-o-lantern shine so bright and scary. Love Zoe

Shout out to Mountain Dew. Not sure what the “agea” stands for at the end of this one.

Logan is weird. He is so so so so weird. And he is fat. Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot. He is chubby.
If my daughter Jackson didn’t write this…I don’t know who did.

Dear Mom and Dad, I put it in here ’cause everybody was. Love, Logan (age 8)

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting to find but I certainly thought there would be…more. I’ve told the story of the secret notes so many times, always imagining a great jackpot was waiting in there. Maybe, like a lot of my memories, the story was only ever big in my mind. Or maybe, like a lot of the unknown, the truth is never as satisfying as the mystery.

Still, I like the spirit behind the tradition. Storing away surprises for another day. Creating secrets beyond your reach right in your own living room. There’s a part of me that wishes the box were still shut, but oh, well…you can’t hold onto the past forever.

Of course, you can always start again. And so, as the truth lay out before me on Donna’s table, the few small bits of paper from those two days so long ago, I folded them all up, and one by one, I put them back in the slot. Then, on another piece of paper…I wrote a message, a new secret.

Then I folded it and slipped it into the dark.



  • Barbara Wirth
    Posted at 21:13h, 22 October

    I love your writing style John! You had me right there—waiting for the great reveal. Life is full of little mysteries. I’ve discovered a few lately—I should write a book.

    • John Marshall
      Posted at 23:14h, 22 October

      Hey Barbara. I heard a TED talk from JJ Abrams about a “Mystery Box” he ordered from the back of a comic book. It promised some great surprise inside for anyone daring enough to buy one for five bucks. He bought one and to this day has never opened it…because the mystery of wondering and not knowing is almost always better than what’s in the box. Now go write your book.

  • Clifton
    Posted at 01:16h, 23 October

    John I love this so much. Photos are stunning. Truly stunning. Awesome work!

  • Deborah Pfeffer
    Posted at 08:26h, 23 October

    Reminds me of the Geshes Question,

    “Have you seen the Snow Lion?”
    Response “No”
    Geshes reply, “Good”

  • Clifford Chand
    Posted at 09:15h, 23 October

    Great Event.

  • Leza Carter
    Posted at 21:55h, 23 October

    I know that candle altar! And being a diehard treasure hunter myself, I loved your story! My guess, by the way, is that “agea” is actually” age 9″. 🙂 Beautiful photos, too!

    • John Marshall
      Posted at 22:00h, 23 October

      Of course it means “Age 9.” I am just a blind dunderhead. Clearly would not have cracked the DiVinci Code. What a dip! Thanks for pointing out the obvious, Leza. Hi to Brian, Luna and Nico. Hope all is well at harvest time out there in Tucson.

  • Donna McGrath-Nedrow
    Posted at 23:06h, 23 October

    You are so gifted! What a beautiful story. Beautiful notes from your children. That’s a gift in itself! Thank you!
    Donna McGrath-Nedrow

  • Natalie Graham
    Posted at 23:48h, 23 October

    Love your stories, John, and this one was wonderful to read. I also enjoyed how you memorialized each note in the photos, as well as the odd change. Very beautiful.

  • Bev Sakran
    Posted at 06:29h, 24 October

    Another wonderful story, John! You are so talented and gifted when sharing a story, making each and every one come alive! 🙂

  • Meredith H. Jordan
    Posted at 09:18h, 24 October

    Another beautiful wisdom teaching from John! Is it time yet to be anticipating a new book?