Cover Feature

When I Hear the Bells

"The pennies the mother saved were not enough to buy presents for her two boys. I was one of those boys."

The winter of 1958 in Lowell, Massachusetts was unusually severe. Snow had settled into the area for weeks, making travel difficult. Schools were closed and businesses shut down. Heating oil and coal had become precious commodities, but no furnace could hold back the bitter chill that permeated Lowell’s pre-war housing projects. Lacy ice crystals on the windows of one crumbling three-story tenement multiplied in the bitter cold.

On the top floor of the tenement lived a young family just trying to get by until spring. It was Tuesday evening, two days before Christmas. The mother had saved all her pennies to buy at least one gift for her sons, but worried that it wouldn’t be enough. While she hung paper rings made from the Sunday funnies on a balding Christmas tree, the boys’ father was off drinking away his meager paycheck. Her tears fell on her work, making the paper rings wet and limp, when a soft knock at the door made her look up. Opening it, she saw two men in the hallway—one tall and one short, their arms full of packages.

“Merry Christmas, Mrs.,” one of them announced. “We’re here to help. May we come in?”

The mother stepped back to let them pass. They began unloading their bags and boxes onto the kitchen table. The taller man looked over his shoulder.

“We’ve heard you’ve had a bad time of it, so we brought you a few necessities. Perhaps your Christmas will be a little brighter, thanks be to the Lord,” he said.

“Amen,” said the other. She wiped her eyes hurriedly and turned to shut the door against the cold.

“Now we have for you some sugar, flour, coffee and tea,” the taller man said. “Some lard, a can of powdered eggs and a can of Spam.” She tried to speak, but a new wave of tears began to fill her eyes. “These two loaves of bread and the peanut butter should help get you through the week,” he continued, “and there’s a few extra odds and ends as well.”

“I don’t know what to say,” she said, finally finding her voice.

The smaller man smiled. “Just say a prayer for someone else in need,” he offered.

“I’ll pray a thank you for the rest of my life,” she replied, still wiping away tears.

Taking two small packages from one of the boxes, the taller man placed them at the edge of the table. “We know you have the boys, too,” he said. The packages were wrapped in colorful paper with hand-tied ribbons and bows; each had a small tag with the word “Boy” written in a bold, loopy script. “We have to go now, Mrs., but a Merry Christmas to you,” said the taller man, stepping to the front door.

Her two boys had been watching through the crack of their bedroom door. When they spied the two gifts being taken from the box, they nudged each other excitedly. As the two men turned to leave, the boys saw that on the front of their caps was a small, metal shield that gleamed with the words “The Salvation Army.”

“Merry Christmas!” the other man exclaimed, tipping his hat before opening the door.

“Merry Christmas, gentlemen,” she said. “And thanks be!”

I was one of those little boys. Every year, as the holidays approach, I am the first to seek out that stalwart group of bell ringers who are not only harbingers of this most blessed annual event, but also bearers of hope for many in need. The Army is here when accounts must be balanced. 

Raymond Lannan resides in Newport, TN.

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