Sometimes when times seem impossible to get to the other side, there is a hidden gift within the events that we may have never experienced if we had not gone through the hard times. This is a story of one of the hardest times in our family’s life and a gift that came to me that would change the direction I may have taken without it.
We had moved from the only house I remembered when I was eight years old. It was a home filled with friends and family, music and laughter. There were wonderful trees that I had begun climbing when I was only three years old. There was a maple tree I had planted myself when I was five years old. I still love trees. I was not happy when I was told that we were moving, but move we did.
We lived by a river in what would be my favorite house. That river sang me to sleep many a night while I would lay looking out my window at the moon. Sometimes while listening to the river’s lullaby, I would think about the events that had occurred in our family.
Jimmy was married to Catherine and lived out of state. Gary was still in college and did not come home that often. So it was Joe and me left at home. He was sixteen. While we lived in this house, Joe was shot by his best friend. It was a hunting accident. It was a scary time for all of us. Joe has always been my gentle brother. He would survive but without three of his fingers on his left hand. But this story is not really about him, and not really about me. It is about how service and giving can be the same. It is about a woman who taught me about both.
While my brother was recovering, I lived with another family. Mr. Bell worked with Da, and Mrs. Bell was Ma’s friend; they opened their heart and home to me. They were as opposite as a couple could be. Mr. Bell was a quiet balding man who seemed to move slow and steady. He had a good sense of humor and the only time I ever heard him be loud was when he laughed. Mrs. Bell was the fastest talker I had ever met. She could say nearly a hundred words without taking a breath. Whenever she called Ma on the phone, Ma rarely got to say a word. She also was in constant motion. Whenever she told a story, her hands moved to show what she was telling. She was the first storyteller that I met that did that. She would tell so much with her hands that she really didn’t have to talk to tell her story. The other thing was while she was telling her story she would involve her audience. She would bend down and tell even the least child how she was making a dress or crocheting. Mostly she was a person with a huge heart.
Mrs. Bell told me her name was Emily Belle Boney and she married James Bell so she became Emily Belle Boney Bell. She told me about growing up in Alabama and marrying her Jamie. She talked about her children and her grandchildren. Her eyes would beam with love and pride whenever she talked of them. She told me stories about the quilts she was making. She would tell me how the colors would make a pattern and tell a story she wanted to tell with the cloth. I hadn’t known that about quilts because my experiences with quilts were the simple coverlets Ma had made to keep us warm. She had a closet filled with her cloth for quilts and with quilts that she had made. Mostly, Mrs. Bell loved to play the piano. She played music by ear since she could not read a note of music. I was amazed since I would give anything to play the music that I heard. She would say come sing with me and she would play the hymns loudly and sing just as loudly along with her playing. She sang with more joy than I knew a person could sing. I was always happy when she would she would ask me to come sing with her. She also knew how to give gifts to herself. She also loved pretty plates and would buy a table for two so that she and Jamie could have different plates to eat on each night. She would tell me that this way she could have many different pretty plates and make her table pretty a different way each night. She was also saving, she would look for sales on plates just so she could do this. I had thought that Ma could make a penny scream, but Mrs. Bell could make a penny scream like a banshee.
In the evenings when Mr. Bell was home he would tell me how my family was doing and sometimes Da would come home with him to have dinner with us, but mostly he went to Knoxville to be with Ma and Joe. Mr. Bell would also ask me about what I was doing in school. I think he did this so he could tell Da how I was doing. In the evenings, they would play dominos or password with me. It was quieter in the evenings when Mr. Bell came home.
They were active Christians. She was a Baptist and he was a Methodist. They would go to Sunday School together and then he would go on to the Methodist Church for preaching. Mr. Bell would always be quiet about his faith. Mrs. Bell was a doer. All day long she filled her day with work and doing things. The woman would never be caught not working at something. She was the same about her faith. She had to be doing something. So she began to look for needs of those around her.
In those days, the tourist season was only from Decoration Day (what the rest of the country calls Memorial Day; it is called Decoration Day because it is the day that the graveyards are cleaned and flowers are placed on the graves of loved ones) until Labor Day. The community lived from feast to famine every year. Work was hard to come by after Labor day for many of the natives. There had been a movement in the early twentieth century to train people in native crafts. The school I attended in Gatlinburg was started by one of these groups( Phi Beta Phi) and because of this we had a program that taught art and wood crafts. Joe made lamps and a desk while he was in high school. We also had rummage sales(sort of like a yard sale today) at school when donated barrels of stuff had come. There was all sorts of junk in those barrels, evening gowns, fancy shoes, and the sort. All the children loved to go to the rummage sale because of the treasures that was in the junk. There was also some good stuff, and many of the women would come to look for coats and shoes for their children at the rummage sale. Other mothers would help run the rummage sale. Ma would help at these sales which occurred twice a year in the fall and in the spring.
Despite all the efforts at that time, people struggled thru the winters. Mrs. Bell saw a need that no one else was addressing. She believed that people should be taught how to care for themselves as much as possible. She would tell me that helping people is more than feeding them a meal and giving them a coat but teaching them how to feed and to clothe themselves is more important because it lasts. She saw a need that most would not have thought of as a need. She felt any woman getting married should have a pretty dress to wear.
While I was staying with the Bells there was one such young woman needing a dress. She was about seventeen years old. Her family did not have money for a wedding so she was going to marry at the church after the church service. Mrs. Bell made her a simple white satin dress with little pearl buttons. Mrs. Bell helped this young woman also by teaching her to sew. Mrs. Bell told her that if she learned to sew that she could make her own clothes. During the afternoons with Mrs. Bell and this young woman working, I watched and joined in a little because I was able to sew on buttons. Ma had taught me when I was five how to sew buttons. We would laugh and Mrs. Bell would tell us stories. Every afternoon would end with Mrs. Bell playing the piano and all of us singing. I remember the day the bride dress was finished and she looked so pretty.
I would learn over the years that Mrs. Bell would go to Knoxville to look for cheap sewing machines usually at pawn shops. She would teach a woman to sew. Some women she would teach how to make quilts so that they could sell and make money while staying home with their children or during those lean months in the winter. What I didn’t know was, I was learning about meeting people where they are concerning their needs. I was learning about how to teach others how to help themselves. I also began to watch those around me and began to see how Ma and Da did their part to help those around them. It was not just about doing these things to help but doing them with a kind of joy.
It was in the Bells home that I learned about service. Somehow it had to be part of my life. It was sort of a soft idea back then that would take a few years to really grow into what would be my career of working with foster children. Years after I had grown up, I wrote a letter to Mrs. Bell thanking her for her gift to me. She wrote me a sweet letter telling me that she only did what she thought she ought to do. She told me that sometimes people were put in her basket and I was just one those placed in her basket all those years ago.
When I returned home, I was glad to be home to hear Da play his harmonica at night, and to have Ma make her pound cakes for my brother and his friends. It was good to have Joe home. I had missed them all, but I also found that I missed living with the Bells. So I would lay those many years ago with my pillow pulled out onto the window sill so I could see the moon and listen to the river singing. If it was especially nice night, I could also hear the wind calling. It was there that I begin to realize that the family around us can make who we are, but so can other people.
It is sort of like wading into a river and picking up a river rock. It is smooth because all the things that brush up against it because the river brings those things to that rock to change it. Da told me that because we talked about rocks. I begin to think we are a little like those river rocks where people and things come up against our lives smoothing us out and changing us. We just have to be willing to wade into that river for it to happen.
This year I want to dedicate this story to all those people who have helped turn the rough rock I was into a river rock. And to all of those still trying to smooth me out because I still need a little more smoothing out, keep trying.