I’ve always loved Christmas: the smells snaking from the kitchen hinting to the wonderful dinner to come, the buzz of voices catching up on all the past year’s events, and munching on 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 its waist. I always believed they sang Christmas songs to God. The best part happened whenever I wound the music key. The angels played “Silent Night”—fast at first then gradually slowing down until the winding key stood still. The golden flames of the fire glowed in the fireplace and wove across the angels, making it appear like they danced 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 in its hook, they shared a look between them—a movie that played a scene from their past only they could see. It was beautiful.
One summer, many years later, my Uncles were assigned the onus task of going through my grandparents’ estate and deciding what to do with all of their knickknacks. Each grandchild received a letter asking which of our grandparents’ special treasures we wanted. I was very close to my grandparents and their death was excruciating for me. So, 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 them.
Christmas that year was the first without either of our grandparents and the bell would make the holidays seem less painful…less quiet. I knew it would take some time before I received the beautiful ornament, but I was patient. Having to wait gave me some time to prepare for the raw emotions I knew would resurface when it arrived.
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 to help 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 said then closed the door, preventing any more snow from sneaking into the warmth. The brown package was quite 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 at birthday time. Under all the paper and foam chips there were a few small jewelry boxes, a clay jug Grandma made and a small object suffocating in bubble wrap. The letter stuffed on top read:
Dear Tam: 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, not allowing me to touch the treasure. Jaimie stood on her tiptoes, straining to see over the box flaps. “Mama,” she whispered. “I see package?” My nervousness turned into excitement when I realized I could share the experience with my daughter as joy instead of dwelling in sadness of the loss.
“Yes, of course, sweetie,” I brought the bubble wrapped surprise down to her level. “Why don’t we open it together, okay?”
She helped me remove the tape and slowly unwrap it. As we spun the bell out of its packaging, I swore each angel breathed a sigh of relief. It was just as I 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 music spiraled out into the air. I closed my eyes and was back in 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 like I used to.
“Gen, Mama,” she squealed. “Music gen?” She reached up and ran her tiny fingers over one of the angels. “She sing dat, Mama?”
I welled up with tears 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?”
We hung the bell up on a little hook I’d stuck into the right side of our mantle months earlier (just in case!) and we listened to the music over and over until I said, “This is the last time, hun. We don’t want to wear out the angels before Christmas morning.”
Then Jaimie clambered into my lap and we cuddled watching the angels dance with the flickering flames of our roaring Christmas Eve fire. Oh! And on top of welcoming the bell into our home, I found another treasure tucked into one of the jewelry boxes: Grandma’s recipe for her melt-in-your-mouth shortbread—in her own handwriting! I don’t think I realized before that day what a wonderful, magical time Christmas truly is. And I am blessed to have gotten to share the spirit of the season—as well as those of my grandparents—with my little girl.