Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Forty-six Cents"... A bell-ringing story...

It was a cold, windy December night.
I was bell-ringing for the Salvation Army outside a mall in upstate New York.
It was the week before Christmas, and people were hurrying.
But smiling.
And nodding.
And dropping change in my bucket.
And "quiet money", too.

Beth and Mandy took turns being with me because it was bitter.
Temps were in the teens.
Wind chill? Straight out of the west, the direction I was facing. The temperature considering that?
Much lower.

A car pulled up, an older SUV with signs of wear. A driver emerged, came around the side, and opened the door for two elderly folks, a man and a woman.
They were not dressed for the weather. I hurried over and opened the door for them to get inside, and ached for the length of time it took them to walk, supporting one another, into the mall.
"Thank you," the woman signed.
The man, hunched and thin, struggled to turn his bent head to smile at me. He dipped his chin lower in acknowledgement.
"You're welcome," I signed back, one of two signs I know. The other is "Feed me. Now."
(Not really, but I need a little comic relief before I tell you the rest.)

Time passes. Beth went inside to get me coffee. The restaurant actually sent out hot chocolate. Free. 
So nice...

It was growing late. Colder. Windier. Snowier.
The elderly couple came back through the door, one tiny bag slung on the woman's arm.
There was no driver. 
No car. 
No one was waiting for them, and I couldn't talk to them because I don't sign. Beth was a sign language major in college, but she was inside.

The man clung to the woman's arm. She held on tight to him, the bag and her small purse. They wore nothing but windbreakers, thin and unlined. No warm scarves. No heavy jacket to protect them. I stood there, trying to tell them to go back inside, that I'd come get them when their driver came.

Of course they didn't understand me and I 'bout near cried.

Beth came out just then. She signed to them and the woman smiled, understanding, but then said they better wait.

The car pulled up a few moments later. By now, this old couple had to be frozen. Literally. But as the woman tried to head toward the car, the old man pulled his arm free and walked toward me.

The woman waited, a sweet smile on her utterly cold face.

The man came up to me. He tugged off the glove he wore, then went searching in his pockets for long moments, hunting up money. Bit by bit the hand withdrew coins.
A quarter. A dime. A nickel. Another nickel. A penny.

Forty-six cents.

He reached for me. His gaze rested on his own hand in explanation.

His hand was deformed with arthritis. Gnarled. Twisted. Turned. Virtually unusable. His hunched shoulders and bent neck were probably due to the same condition. My heart ached that this gentle, loving, bent man could no longer do the little things most of us take for granted. Like pulling change from a pocket.

His gaze trained on mine. I could see he was afraid the money would drop into the snow and be lost so he wanted me to put it into the kettle.

"I understand," I said. Beth signed the words for me. 
"Merry Christmas and thank you."

He smiled.
Oh, that smile.
It was like God himself smiled at me through that bent, aged face. Cold. Wind-burnt. Poor.

Like the widow who shared from her lack, this man's sacrifice came from his need.

That was years ago, but I never face a problem, a predicament, a moment when I don't see the love and devotion of that couple to each other. To God. To others. And that gnarled hand groping for forty-six cents.

And that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.


  1. Goosebumpingly beautiful, Ruthy! Thank you!

  2. You always accuse me of making you cry. Well, you have returned the favor by the bucket load of tears. Thanks for the reminder in this crazy week.

  3. I can't help but cry when I tell this story. Every stinkin' time. Here. Tissues...

  4. Yes, please pass the tissues....great story, Ruthy! Thanks!!

  5. WAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!

    sniff sniff

    Beautiful story, Ruthy. Just beautiful.

  6. Heart warming and heart breaking all at the same time. It's wonderful how certain people can touch our lives in such a way!

  7. It amazes me how God puts things in our paths then leaves it up to us to do something with it. So sometimes I can be of concrete help. Other times, it goes in a book to help others. Other times... prayer. Prayer. Prayer.

    And trust, right?

  8. Bell ringing always creates memories. Some good, some funny, some very interesting, and all very worth it.

  9. Pass the tissues, please.

    Thank you for sharing that wonderful story, Ruthy. When we're surrounded by so much commercialism, it's lovely to be reminded of the true gifts of love and sacrifice the season is meant to celebrate.