The Christmas Bell
by Chynna Laird
I’ve always loved Christmas: the smells snaking out from the kitchen hinting to the wonderful dinner to come; the buzz of voices catching up on all the past year’s events; and devouring Grandma’s melt-in-your-mouth shortbread cookies (Grandma would never divulge her shortbread secret nor could we find the recipe). But my fondest memories swirl around a beautiful bell that hung from its designated hook on the right side of my grandparents’ fireplace.
It was brass with a thick woven golden rope tied into a sparkly tassel on the end. There were three angels on its body: their wings spread wide with each holding a harp at their waists. I always believed they were singing Christmas songs to God. The best part was winding the music key and hearing “Silent Night”, fast at first then gradually slowing down until the winding key stood still. The golden flames of the fire roaring in the fireplace waved across the angels making it appear as though they were dancing in time to the music. I rewound it over and over until my grandfather said, “Make that the last one, Dumplin’. Or you’ll tire ‘em out before Christmas Day.”
Grandpa bought it for Grandma for their first Christmas together. I never heard the story behind the bell but every year when it came out of its box and was hung from its hook, my grandparents shared a look between them, a movie playing a scene from their past only they could see. It was beautiful.
Many years later, after they’d both gone, my Uncles were assigned the onus task of going through their estate, deciding what to do with all their knickknacks. Each grandchild received a letter asking what, if anything, we’d like to remind us of our grandparents. I was very close to my grandparents and their death was excruciating for me. Choosing one special item of theirs when they hadn’t been gone very long wasn’t a task I wanted to think about. But, in my heart, I already knew the one thing I needed: the bell.
It was a symbol of their love for each other as well as a symbol of what Christmas meant to each of them. The year I’d asked for the bell was the first without either of them. I knew it was going to take some time before I’d receive the beautiful ornament, but I was patient. I hadn’t seen it since the last Christmas we had at my grandparents’ house when I was in my early twenties. Having to wait gave me some time to prepare myself for the emotions I wasn’t quite ready to deal with.
By the time fall blew in, I’d completely forgotten about my request. It seemed like just as I was putting the Halloween stuff away, Christmas was nipping at our heels. My daughter, Jaimie, was almost three by then. She was old enough to understand and be more interested in the holidays. She just loved helping me decorate—even if it meant all the decorations were at the lower three feet of the tree.
A couple of days before Christmas Eve, the doorbell interrupted our masterpiece gingerbread house creation. Because we were several hundreds of miles away from family during the holidays, we received a lot of packages.
“Merry Christmas,” said our cheery postman. It was his second trip to our house that day. “Here’s another one from home. Enjoy.”
“Thanks, Joe,” I closed the door, preventing any more snow from sneaking in the door. The brown package was small and reeked like gasoline from its long truck ride. When I recognized the handwriting as my Uncle’s, my heart fluttered.
Could it be?
I ripped the package open like a child on her birthday and under all the paper and foam chips there were a few small jewelry boxes, a clay jug my grandmother had made and a small object suffocating in bubble wrap. The letter stuffed on top read:
Here are some items of Grandma and Grandpa’s we thought you’d like. The most precious of which, to you and them, is wrapped up tight.
I hope it arrives by Christmas.
Love, Uncle Rick
I stared down at the lumpy object left in the box. Part of me wanted to just grab it and rip it open. But another part of me was too nervous. My arms hung at my sides like heavy lead pipes, preventing me from touching it.
“Mama,” Jaimie whispered. “I see package?” She stood on her tiptoes and strained to see over the flaps of the box.
My nervousness turned to excitement when I realized I could share this experience with my daughter as joy instead of dwelling in sadness of the loss.
“Yes, of course, sweetie,” I brought the bubble wrapped treasure down to her level. “Why don’t we open it together, okay?”
She helped me remove the tape and slowly unwrap it. As the bell spun out of the packaging, I swore I heard each angel breath a sigh of relief. It was just as I’d remembered it—a little less shiny maybe, but just as beautiful. Heavenly.
As I wound it up I said to Jaimie, “Wait until you hear this, sweetie. You’re gonna love it.”
When I let go of the key, the music surrounded us. I closed my eyes and was taken back for a moment to my grandparents’ living room when I was the same age as Jaimie. I smelled the turkey in the oven, I heard the laughter of my family, I tasted the melt-in-your-mouth shortbread cookies, and I saw the angels dancing to the music as the flames of the fire shone across them.
The key stopped moving and I opened my eyes to see Jaimie staring, mouth agape, at the bell—just as I had all those years ago.
“Gen, Mama,” she squealed. “Music gen?” She reached up and ran her tiny fingers over one of the angels. “She sing dat, Mama?”
Tears pooled in my lower lids as I re-wound the bell. “Yes, hun. She’s singing the song. Let’s go hang it up so Daddy can see it when he gets home, okay?”
Months earlier, I’d stuck a little hook under the right side of our mantle, just in case. We hung our bell up on the hook, listening to the music over and over until I said, “This is the last one, hun. We don’t want to wear out the angels before Christmas morning.”
On top of welcoming the bell into my home, the recipe for Grandma’s shortbread was tucked into one of the jewelry boxes. It was the best Christmas ever.
Merry Christmas, Gram and Gramps. Thank you.