Editor's note — This column was first published in 1987 by the Coeur d’Alene (Idaho) Press, where the author was managing editor and a weekly columnist at the time. He is now a faculty member at the Missouri School of Journalism.
The tiny bell rang out for Christmas coins. But for Mom, it also jingled up memories of the best of mankind amid the worst of inhumanity.
Few things mark Christmas more for me than the sight of a red pot hung from a tripod and the sound of a little bell rung incessantly by a Salvation Army volunteer.
Some of my earliest memories are of wondering why the lady in the dour uniform insisted on driving everyone on the main street of my hometown crazy with the ringing. Even more amazing was that my mother could not pass that red pot without digging through her enormous purse for the change that migrated to the farthest corner.
Mom didn’t just drop a coin or two in the pot. A big, boisterous Englishwoman, she stopped at every Salvation Army outpost she ever came across to give the volunteer a little pep talk. More often than not, she broke out in a spontaneous and embarrassingly loud rendition of "Jingle Bells."
I just passed it off as parental insanity and slunk behind the nearest streetlight lest any of my friends happened by.
One Christmas after I had passed into that black hole of cynicism – adolescence – I decided to put an end to all this nonsense.
"If you are going to give them money, Mom," said the all knowing I, "why don’t you just write a check? Then you can get it over with and have a receipt for your taxes."
At Christmastime, Mom was more ebullient than Scrooge the morning after. But my suggestion caused a gray pallor of Christmas past to wash over her. She quietly sat down to explain.
My mother grew up in a large family in a working-class London neighborhood. Her childhood was full of all those wonderful British street urchin adventures with which Dickens and Masterpiece Theater regale us.
Except for the maniacal vision of a certain German fellow with a small, bristly mustache, she would have grown up into one of those plump, sarcastic matrons who populate "Andy Capp."
World War II turned Mom’s picturesque life upside down. The double-decker bus my grandfather drove became an ambulance, my grandmother was issued a helmet and a bucket of sand to patrol for incendiary bombs, and Mom found herself celebrating her 17th birthday wearing a Royal Air Force uniform.
During that time of terror, she said, the Salvation Army offered Londoners a tangible link with more peaceable times. When the Blitz made street corners unsafe, the dark-cloaked soldiers of God took their brass bands down into the air raid shelters for concerts accompanied by bomb blasts. She recalled how many families who returned to surface to find their once-neat homes reduced to rubble counted on the Salvation Army for food and shelter.
Later in the war, Mom was transferred to a unit in North Africa. Although they were supposed to staff a secure air base she and her fellow Women's Auxiliary Air Force members spent weeks dodging from desert town to desert town as Rommel kept the Tommies at bay.
The Brits were at a low ebb when they pulled into a particularly desolate Algerian village. The heat, the dust and the strange environs constantly reminded them that Piccadilly Circus was an eternity away.
To Mother’s everlasting surprise, a very un-African sight greeted them as the trucks pulled to a halt. Two Salvation Army members in full uniform had set up a table and greeted each airman and airwoman with a hot cup of tea and those buttery cookies the English insist on calling biscuits.
"It was as if they had brought a bit of home to us," Mom told me. "It was amazing – two little old ladies out in the middle of the desert."
Mom said she never found out what became of those dedicated ladies. Every Christmas, however, she expressed her earnest thanks to their bell-tinkling descendants.
I never again chided her for singing "Jingle Bells." I’ve puzzled a few bellringers, however, with my words as I dropped coins into the pot.
"Merry Christmas, Mom."