My mother-in-law loved hearing bells on Christmas morning. She remembered her mother ringing bells to wake all the children on Christmas morning, and the clear sweet sound of the bell in the cold winter chill of an unheated house brought warmth, promise, surprise, more anticipation than any other day in the cold North Carolina mountain town of Canton. I found her bell recently when I was cleaning the shelves in my living room. I thought of Pauline and the joy she felt at hearing bells on Christmas. My children called her on the last Christmas she lived at home and rang this bell for her. So I rang Pauline’s bell for her too.
I also found the school bell that belonged to my great great aunt Lucy Ellen, and I wondered at the times she rang this bell to call children to school. Hers is a sturdier bell than Pauline’s. Its wooden handle is rubbed smooth from use, it has a deeper more resonant sound than Pauline’s bell and the clapper is still sturdily attached, not wobbly. It firmly strikes the inside of the bell to make a sound almost like a Tibetan singing bowl. I can imagine Lucy Ellen the school marm ringing it vigorously, authoritatively—perhaps not as gracefully as handbell ringers might—to call children to their lessons. Lucy Ellen and Phoebe Jane were two Irish sisters who were orphaned when they were 8 and 10. How they ended up in Lewisville is a mystery I still haven’t solved, but their parents, Irish immigrants, both died around 1870 of typhoid. Lewis Laugenour, for whom the local village of Lewisville is named, took in one of the girls (my great grandmother Phoebe) and John Stoltz , a school teacher, took in Lucy Ellen. Phoebe sat on the front porch of the Laugenour house (that still stands in Lewisville as its centerpiece), looking toward the unseen house where her sister was and wept, refusing to eat for so many days that the two families decided they must reunite the girls. The Stoltzes took both, and Phoebe began to eat again. Lucy Ellen became a school teacher, and the school bell was hers, now passed to me because of my years as a teacher. Phoebe, the younger sister, died when she lost the baby that would have been my grandfather’s brother or sister. Lucy Ellen married, lost a child when he was about 8, lost her husband, remarried, had another child, a daughter, who also died before she was 12. I wonder what she thought when she
had lost so many people close to her: her parents, her younger sister, her two children and a husband. I wonder if she rang that bell when all those dear to her died. My aunt Lucile, named for Lucy Ellen, used to spend a week or two with Aunt Ellen to help her with cleaning. Aunt Ellen encouraged Lucile to become a writer, perhaps because she saw Lucile’s ability to see and to make connections. Maybe she just thought Lucile would tell her story and keep those connections for future generations. Maybe Lucile has done just that when she told me stories of Lucy Ellen. I ring Aunt Ellen’s bell for those connections, for those losses, for those beckonings.
Bells, bells, bells. The resonance of their sound, the tinkling of small ones, the stop-listen-heed call of the bells, the deep resonance of a bass bell that reverberates over the rooftops and into the windows of homes. Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. Hemingway used part of that segment of a John Donne meditation for his book title. Donne wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. … Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” This reminds me of the interconnectedness of all humankind. When the bell rings and someone dies in a little village—I can imagine hearing this—so much better than an air raid siren or tornado siren—I can imagine hearing the bells toll in a church steeple, ringing out over the countryside to let everyone in the community know of a death, a birth, an event that adds to or subtracts from their wholeness. The bell rings for us all. It rang for Aunt Ellen when she called in her pupils, when her parents, her sister, her son, her daughter, her husband died. It rang for Pauline, my mother-in-law. It rang for my daughter at age 15.
I heard the sirens when emergency vehicles responded to the car crash that killed our daughter Elizabeth. She died less than half a mile from our home. I wanted to toll bells then, angry bells that would ring out the agony and sorrow and sadness, deep, throaty bells that would reflect some of the depth of my sorrow. The strength and energy that it would take to pull the ropes to ring such bells would make the very muscle that is my heart strain and wrench. It would be like pulling out some of the scream from inside and making it resonate, making it dissipate.
I joined a handbell choir last year, drawn to the sounds of the bells. I am the newbie. I play a few of the bass bells. Now I am ringing bells for Elizabeth as I play in concert with the others in the bell choir. In a bell choir, there are few solos. Playing alone doesn’t make beautiful music; it is necessary to be part of the whole. My bells are large, heavy, deep and clear. The sounds touch my heart and help it to heal, and the sounds are more often peaceful than angry now. I ring the bells for Elizabeth, for Lucy Ellen and her losses, for Pauline’s joys and hopes, for me, for all of us.