From the Relief Society Magazine, December 1955 –
Bells of Christmas
By Pearl Montgomery
Pete Duncan hung around my desk after the other children had gone. He was still shy though school had been in session for two months. It was plain he wanted to say something.
“Yes, Pete?” I said, hoping to help him.
“Teacher,” he asked quickly and breathlessly, “do you think Lily Belle is a pretty name?”
“Yes, I do. Lilies are lovely flowers and Belle means pretty. Is there a new baby in the family?”
“No, it’s a burro. I’m going to buy him. That isn’t his name now. They call him Jack, but I’m going to call him Lily Belle when he’s mine. I’m saving up money from my paper route, and I’ll have twenty dollars by Christmas so I can get him to ride in vacation. I’m buying him from Mr. Meyers.”
“Why, Pete, how nice.” I smiled down into his flushed face. “A burro is a fine playmate. Will you ride him on your paper route?”
“I don’t think so. You see, I can go faster on my bike. Burrows are kinda slow sometimes, and sometimes they want to go where you aren’t going. Well, I guess I’ll be going,” having told his happy secret.
I sat for a while musing over Pete and his brothers and sisters, children of a shiftless father often out of work, and a little drudge of a mother. She and Pete were far the best of the family … more sensitive spirits and so, more easily hurt, and I didn’t want Pete hurt.
I remembered the shamed hurt in his eyes when he had no money for Junior Red Cross at school after having made a proud pledge. His father had taken the money from the paper route for food, being once more out of work, himself. I hoped nothing like that would happen again, and yet, I thought, it surely wasn’t the most thrifty way in the world to spend twenty dollars when the family was in such need. I couldn’t think of anything they needed less than a burro. Perhaps part of the money might be spent for a warm sweater for Pete, or shoes with good soles to replace the ones he wore to school which couldn’t possibly keep his feet dry on rainy days. It evidently hadn’t occurred to Pete but that Lily Belle was an entirely appropriate name for a shaggy little beast. Perhaps the little burro with the flowery name would be white hyacinths to feed his soul.
As I walked home that afternoon with another teacher, I told her about Lily Belle. “Mr. Meyers has no children, has he?” I asked.
“No, he never had any,” she replied. “But Mrs. Meyers had children by a previous marriage, and grandchildren. Her daughter died and the little grandson came to live with them. I think Mr. Meyers grew really fond of him. It was for him that he bought the burro. But when his wife died, her relatives took the child away.”
“So that was why he soured on the world,” I meditated. “He certainly drives a hard bargain, and it was cruel to foreclose on old Mrs. Larsen.”
“He is a hard man to understand,” she said, and we let the matter drop.
Not long after that, as I drove past the dump, I saw Pete salvaging pieces of twisted bailing wire and smiled as I thought what queer and apparently worthless things were dear to the heart of a boy.
A few days later I called to Pete after school. “Pete, I’m going by your house. Would you like to ride?”
Oh, yes, he would. As we neared his home, Peter said with scarcely concealed pride, “Teacher, I’ve got Lily Belle’s corral nearly done. Would you like to see it?”
“Yes, indeed I would.” I got out of the car and went with him. There, by a tiny old shed, stood, or perhaps I should say leaned, the result of two days’ work. A piece of corrugated iron, an old railroad tie, a piece of cracked iron water pipe, and branches of trees leaning at all angles made the posts. These were strung together with pieces of rusty baling wire, and here and there, barbed wire. An old tub made the water trough and the rickety old shed would provide shade in summer and protection from most of the rain in winter. What more could a donkey want in Southern California?
“You see the hayfield over there?” Pete asked. “Mr. Wilson said I could tie Lily Belle over there to graze. And I’m going to lead him along the rod to eat grass, and he likes turnip and carrot tops. I’ll find lots for him to eat.”
Perhaps he will, I thought, remembering the burro my children had for a while, who ate everything, including my prize roses, as he ambled down the driveway in spite of vigorous switching and yelling from the children.
Pete’s mother saw us from the window and came out. She laid her hand on my arm as she said appealing, “It seems like an awful lot of money for Pete to spend when he needs so many things. He has gone without them and worked so hard to get the money because he wants this burro more than he has ever wanted anything else. Seems like he just has to have him.”
One day, in response to an urgent invitation from Pete, I went with him to see the matchless Lily Belle. He stood motionless in a field, but, at a whistle, he walked leisurely over to us, a half-size cowbell tinkling musically at his throat. He began sniffing at Pete’s hands, his shirt pockets, and finally pulled a carrot from his pants pocket. This he crunched with gusto while the boy showed me points of excellence hitherto undetected by me. I suspect they would have been forever unknown, but it was clear that Pete loved this shaggy little beast, and, in return, Lily Belle gave him some measure of devotion. At least as long as a tidbit could be expected.
When we left, Lily Belle stretched out his head and brayed a protest – “Aw-ee-Aw–ee-Aw-ww.”
“He’s lonesome for us,” Pete said, and so it seemed, or at least for another carrot.
As the Christmas vacation neared, I forgot Lily Belle in busy holiday preparations. The air was full of the spicy smell of evergreens and the sound of whispered secrets. The last day of school, I noticed Pete’s sober face in contrast to the happy faces of the other children. After school I asked him to wait. “Are you getting Lily Belle soon?” I asked. Two unwilling tears rolled down the boy’s face.
“No,” he said. “I can’t have him for a while, and maybe not at all.”
“I thought you were going to have the money by now,” I answered, hesitating to probe, but seeing that something was wrong.
“You see, my bike broke down, and I had to take the money to get it fixed. I have to ride it on my paper route. Mr. Meyers said he wouldn’t wait much longer and perhaps he would sell Lily Belle to someone else and give me back my money.”
“Did you ask him if he would trust you for the rest until you got it?”
“Yes, and he said poor people shouldn’t get things till they had the money.”
Shouldn’t. Shouldn’t. I never did like that word.
“How much was it?”
Why, the old skinflint. The miserable old Scrooge, I thought. He has money to burn. I’d like to choke him. Pete’s unhappiness haunted me, and because I’m always sticking my neck out, I found myself driving slowly past the Meyers place the next day, looking for the man. Sure enough. he was coming out to his mailbox. I waited.
“Good morning, Mr. Meyers.”
“Not bad,” he conceded sourly, as if he would much rather have very bad weather indeed.
“Place looks nice,” I said. “Never saw a better orchard.” He shot a suspicious look at me.
“Not bad,” he said again and started to turn toward the house. Oh, where were all the diplomatic phrases I had prepared? He mustn’t get away. I wanted to talk with him, but he was going. I must hurry. I threw diplomacy overboard.
“Mr. Meyers, when you were a boy, did you ever want anything so tremendously that it filled your whole life and then find you couldn’t have it?”
He looked at me in astonishment and then, as I watched, the hard grasping lines in his face slowly faded away and a thoughtful, meditative look replaced them as he reached way back in his memory.
“Why, yes, I did,” he said slowly after a time. “Yes, I did.” He stood silent for a moment, then he said, “It was a pair of shoes.”
“A pair of shoes!” I exclaimed.
“Yes, a pair of shoes. The boys in our country school went barefoot in summer, even to Sunday school. We were graduating from the eighth grade and not going on to high school, which was several miles away. I hoped to go. I was going to earn my way. Well, the boys were wearing shoes and I wanted them especially because we were invited to a party afterwards at a girl’s house. I … well … I guess I was sweet on that girl and she asked me to lead the grand march with her.
“Of course I had to have shoes. Well, it was all right at first. Pa always made us work for our clothes, and I planned to earn enough, but … I couldn’t.” Another wait while he turned things over in his mind and then, defiantly, “It’s all right for kids to earn their clothes.”
“Of course,” I agreed, “if they can.”
“That was it,” he admitted. “I hurt my hand … bad … my right hand, and I couldn’t work.”
“But surely your father advanced the money.”
“No, he didn’t. He said we had to learn … the sooner, the better … to live on what we had and not go in debt.”
Mr. Meyers didn’t say anything more, but I wanted to know if he went to the party anyway, so after a while I asked, “Did you go to the party?”
“No,” he replied harshly. “Nor the exercises either. I learned all right. And I quit thinking I could earn my way through high school. It took a long time for my hand to heal, but I’ve earned my way ever since, and I haven’t gone in debt.”
Another silence, and then I said, “I wish you could have had your shoes.” And then, “I must go.” But I didn’t go. I had come, mad and belligerent and ready to fight for Pete, and Mr. Meyers had told me this pathetic story, and now I was sorry for him. I didn’t know how to ask for Lily Belle. As I was pondering this, Mr. Meyers asked a sudden question, “How come you asked did I ever want something so bad?” and I had my chance.
“Because right now, a little boy wants something as much as you wanted shoes. He has doted on it a long time, and he’s worked for it, too … hard. It isn’t his fault his bike broke down and he had to use the money he was going to pay for your burro. Now it will take some time before he can save enough to finish payment. Well, I must go.”
For as long as I could see him in my rear view window, Mr. Meyers stood still by the mailbox.
The next afternoon I was tying up packages when I kept hearing a little tinkling sound, faintly at first, then louder as it came nearer. I looked out of the window and I think I never saw a happier face than Pete’s as he sat astride his beloved Lily Belle.
“Teacher, teacher,” he cried jubilantly. “Mr. Meyers said to take Lily Belle and finish paying later. And he gave me this brand new rope to tie him. And something more, he said he wanted to give me a pair of new shoes! Nothing to do with Lily Belle at all … he just wanted to get me new shoes.”
Here Pete paused for breath and then rushed on. “And my mother says when someone does something nice for us, we must do something nice for them, so we asked Mr. Meyers to Christmas dinner. And, teacher, he acted real glad to come.”
As Lily Belle’s tinkle receded down the street, I heard all the bells of Christmas joyously ringing in my heart. I knew they were ringing in Pete’s heart, and in Mr. Meyers’, too, and I’m sure he heard and understood for the first time the glorious song of the angels … “and on earth peace, good will toward men.”