Every year in mid-December, I looked forward to going Christmas caroling with kids and adults from our church. We would walk around our little town of Ethel, Mo., (it didn’t take long) and sometimes even caravan to certain shut-ins who lived outside of town – too far to walk, especially on a chilly and dark and snowy late afternoon.
Afterwards we would enjoy soup and hot cocoa in the church basement as we decorated the Christmas tree. If we were lucky, there would be some of my mom’s iced raisin bread leftover from the cheer packages we would have delivered earlier – still warm from her afternoon baking at the church.
But, every year on this caroling day, I always whined a little to myself because I knew my Great Aunt Miriam was expecting me at the church a few hours before anyone else would arrive. From there, she would aways assume I would go with her to deliver cheer packages to a couple of shut-ins who lived on the twisty-turny road north of town toward Goldsberry.
And you couldn’t say no to Aunt Miriam. Nobody could. Back during the oil crisis of the ‘70s, Wesley Lee always said that the president should have sent my Aunt Miriam over to talk to the Arabs. He said those Arabs would have the pockets of their robes full of chewing gum and we would have all the oil we could ever want.
It’s true. Aunt Miriam always had chewing gum to give. Sometimes folks didn’t even know she had given it to them until after she would bustle away. She always, as my dad would say, felt she had to “keep the air full of words.” Before you knew it, she had talked you into doing whatever she wanted, and you hadn’t gotten in a word edgewise. And you’d be the new owner of a pack of Juicy Fruit.
Even if there had been a gap in the conversation, no one would even think of saying, “No, Miss Miriam. I’m not going to do it.” That was unthinkable. Not to sweet little Miss Miriam. (Most folks – even older people – referred to her as Miss Miriam as she had taught nearly all of them when they were going through grade school.)
So, I would meet her at the church and act like I was looking forward to it and she would pat my cheek and say “Sally Beth, you and I simply must do this. They’ll be expecting us.”
I guess there was nothing really painful about this annual excursion. My sister and brothers had survived when they had gone with her years before me. It didn’t take long, but it felt like more of a sense of duty than, well … fun – like when as a church group we would go caroling where we would pelt each other with snowballs along the way. One would never think of pelting Aunt Miriam with a snowball. She was not … peltable.
So, off we’d go with Mom’s raisin bread and homemade jellies and the oranges and apples Aunt Miriam purchased. She also made sure that whoever played Santa Class on Christmas Eve at the church would have a sack full of oranges and apples to hand out. That used to puzzle me. Oranges and apples for Christmas? What kind of a Christmas present was that? But then Mom told me, and later Aunt Miriam confirmed, that oranges and apples were real treats in the early 1900s when Aunt Miriam was a child. That was often the only gifts they got in their stockings! Period. What a bummer. But it was all they knew and they thought it was Christmas.
So, Aunt Miriam and I would load up in her Impala and be off at a snail’s pace on our trip toward Goldsberry – a town even smaller than Ethel! At regular speed almost everyone would get carsick going over those hills but not with Aunt Miriam behind the wheel. We’d inch along with her talking all the way. Even the notorious airplane hill where you’d usually have to pull your stomach down from the air was undetectable with Aunt Miriam behind the wheel.
Our first stop on this 30-mile-an-hour trip over the hills was at the home of Mrs. Edna Bell. I never saw her anywhere except this one time of year at her home. She was a nice older lady wearing a nice older lady print dress. Her home was nothing fancy but your typical nice, older lady house. Kind of had that older lady smell, too. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t fresh and … young smelling. If you tried to bottle it up in an aerosol spray it would probably only sell to ... well, older ladies.
Mrs. Edna Bell always had candy in the candy dish. Even though it was older lady candy – those mints you usually only get at weddings along with some butterscotches – I always wanted some. What can I say? I was a kid. Kids always want anything in the candy category. Thankfully, she would always encourage me to take some.
I would sit there quietly sucking on a butterscotch as Aunt Miriam talked with her. For the life of me, I can’t remember what all she talked about. Probably about Mrs. Bell’s relatives. Aunt Miriam could tell anyone who they were related to and how. So, I’m sure it focused around some relatives of Mrs. Bell’s and how they were doing.
Finally, Aunt Miriam would say “well, now here’s a nice cheer package for you.” Mrs. Bell would thank her and say how wonderful it looked and how wonderful my mother was to bake her some bread and for the homemade jellies, too.
Then, Aunt Miriam would wake me out of my daze and say “Now, my little Sally Beth would like to sing you some Christmas carols.” Can’t say I was champing at the bit to sing, but I didn’t mind either. It was a small audience of two that would be easy to please.
So, I would sing “Deck the Halls” or “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” or whatever came to mind. Sometimes Aunt Miriam would take requests for me. No problem. Mrs. Edna Bell usually said that whatever I wanted to sing would be lovely. She would smile politely, and Aunt Miriam would sit proudly as I would sing – finally winding up with the standard Christmas caroler finale of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
Very nice, she would say as we made our way to the door. Thank your mother again and everyone at the Ethel Presbyterian Church.
We’d get back in the car at which point Aunt Miriam would say, “Now that was just fine. We’ll just go to the next Mrs. Bell’s and that will be that and we’ll get that over with.” (She would always say “well, we got that over with” after any kind of event … even if it was a fun one.)
I came to kind of dread that next stop but also be curious and interested to see if Mrs. Edith Bell would look the same as I’d remember from the year prior. I don’t think she was any relation to the first Mrs. Bell. Guess I should have asked Aunt Miriam. She could have told me.
To get to Mrs. Edith Bell’s we had to drive through a pasture. I can remember nearly getting stuck in the snow a few times or having some man – Roy Standley, I think – pick us up in a truck to get to her house. Getting Aunt Miriam in a four-wheel drive pick-up was no easy task. I think the reason we didn’t get stuck more in her car was that someone would contact Roy ahead of time and have him clear a way for us before we’d get there. Like I said, Aunt Miriam really didn’t want to have to climb up in a pick-up – hard to be very ladylike that way.
We’d get to an old shack of a home where this Mrs. Bell lived. We’d knock on the door and Aunt Miriam would do her little birdcall of a sound where she rolls her tongue real fast. In some ways, it was better than a whistle and was kind of like bringing your own doorbell with you.
Then here would come Mrs. Bell. She always looked like a wild woman! Her old gray hair was going everywhere but where it should. I wondered if she had ever combed it. She would have on an old sweater with several holes in it and on her wrinkled hands were old cheap brown gloves with the fingers worn out. Even Aunt Miriam would say she kind of looked like Old Scratch which I later found out was a term for the devil. But she looked thrilled to see us, and I think she was smiling broadly even though there were only two or three teeth to verify that.
If you ever saw that spin-off of “Gunsmoke” called “Dirty Sally,” well, you’d seen Mrs. Edith Bell. (I was glad that show was short-lived as there were just too many references to the name Sally already that weren’t flattering including the song “I got a mule her name is Sal, fifteen miles on the Erie Canal.” Come to think of it, Dirty Sally also had a mule, but it was named Worthless. How could they have thought that they could have a TV series about that?)
Mrs. Edith Bell would beg us to “Come in, come in!” Aunt Miriam would push me through the door, and I’d force a smile at this rather frightening-looking Mrs. Bell. We’d walk through what must have been a kitchen because there were always a few open cans of food on a counter of sorts. Apparently, she just ate out of cans and the food always looked a few days old. Before my brother Stuart had outgrown caroling at the “Bells” he and I would always try not to look at each other when we were there so we wouldn’t laugh. We did at least know that it really wasn’t funny, and we could hurt her feelings.
Mrs. Bell would lead Aunt Miriam and me into what must have been her living room. It had an old oil stove in the middle of it that made the whole house smell like the filling station. Her bed was right there, too, and she always invited me to sit down on it by her. Oh, I didn’t want to, but what could I do? There’s Aunt Miriam over there searching for a secure chair while giving me that go-ahead-Sally-Beth nod. So, I did. It never killed me.
Aunt Miriam would start filling the air with words which gave me a chance to glance around the room. Man, this is what being poor was all about! Looking like Dirty Sally, eating out of cans, and smelling like a filling station. Poor Mrs. Bell. Still, she kept smiling that three-toothed smile. Tickled pink that we were there.
She would hold that plate of warm bread up to her nose and inhale deeply. It was like just doing that filled her stomach. She gave me the impression that it was the best gift in the world – better than a new stove, decent clothes, or a full set of teeth.
Then would come my cue from Aunt Miriam to sing. I’d try my best to look directly and sincerely at Mrs. Bell sitting next to me and I’d begin singing “Away in a Manger.” I must have sounded and looked like an angel to her. I can remember the look on her face. Her eyes were bright and watery, and her sweet, three-toothed smile begged me to go on. She would clasp her raggedy-gloved hands together and say that it was “beautiful, just beautiful!” I wanted to sing again for her but run away at the same time! There was no getting up to go until Aunt Miriam led the way, so I’d sing until she felt it was time.
Mrs. Edith Bell hated to see us leave. Her face was filled with gratitude at these visitors she would see only once a year. I wondered at the time if anyone else ever visited her and cared throughout the year and how could they let her live like this in a shack? Only later did I realize she must have had somebody checking on her and bringing her food. Maybe she didn’t want to leave what she knew to be home.
When we’d get back in the car and wave good-bye to her as she stood at her old door ready to fall off the hinges, Aunt Miriam would click her tongue and say that’s too bad she is in that shape but that we needed to go visit her and now we have. Now we’ve got that over with. I agreed. We needed to do that.
I can’t remember how many years we did that. I know we were still going when I was able to drive, and Aunt Miriam would be my passenger. The drive there was faster, but the routine once inside was the same as when I was seven.
I’m guessing that both Mrs. Bells died about the time I was in college. I wish I could remember more or ask Aunt Miriam, but she’s been gone a long while, too.
I would welcome the opportunity now to make that slow trip with her. To go see Mrs. Edna Bell and Mrs. Edith Bell respectively. To do that not because it was fun but because it was Christmas and we needed to.
I can still sing okay, I guess, but never will my voice be as welcomed and heard as sweetly as it was all those years. Then and there, I was the voice of an angel that visited them once a year – singing of the story of our Savior’s birth.
Now I realize what an honor it was to have been that voice for Mrs. Edna and for Mrs. Edith – two Bells of my Christmas past. And all made possible by a determined, unpeltable woman.
Thank you, Aunt Miriam. You were right. We needed to do that. But I sure wish it wasn’t over with.
Sally Troutman Boyd hails from Ethel, Mo., and is proud of her small town roots – even pleased that her hometown’s name gets a chuckle and becomes a conversation starter. Despite living in St. Louis for the past 30+ years, much of her remembrances and writings come from growing up on a farm in the '60s and '70s. The majority of her career has been in nonprofit fundraising for individuals with developmental disabilities.