Christmas Mittens and Silver Bells
By: Phyllis Staton Campbell
A good action is never lost; it is a
treasure laid up and guarded for the doer’s need.
October of 1982 was rich with the rustle of dogwood leaves mingling with the voices of the neighborhood children on their way to or from school.
At times, the air was filled with the sound of thousands of birds, singing a finale to the summer and early fall as they departed for their winter feeding ground.
It was all the same, the same as it had been a hundred years ago when the old house was still young and untouched by the sorrows and joys of a century of seasons.
Yes, the fall was the same, but it brought no joy.
We were in the midst of the recession of the early 1980’s. Chuck had been laid off two years ago, and there was no permanent work to be had in his field.
“Why doesn’t he do something else?” we were constantly asked by skeptics who probably thought he wasn’t trying.
After a while, I stopped attempting to explain that he had tried, only to be told, “Sorry, but you’re overqualified.” He applied for almost every job advertised in the newspapers. He haunted the public library to read the ads in the out-of-town papers, but the answer was always the same: “Sorry.”
Ed, who worked for the Virginia Department for the Visually Handicapped, had to visit blind clients scattered over several counties, and Chuck drove for him. This brought in some money, but unless one has experienced it, there is no way to explain the worry and uncertainty of not having a full-time job.
Somehow I’d managed to sustain my optimism until that October. Then it hit me too, that feeling of loneliness, of uselessness.
“We’re not exchanging Christmas gifts this year,” I told Nez around the middle of the month. I knew she often did her shopping early, because she ordered a lot of her gifts from catalogs. I knew, too, that it would upset her not to be able to send us her usual token of love, and I wanted to get it over with.
“But I can’t do that!” I could hear tears in her voice. “I’ll have to send you something. I don’t care if you can’t send me anything. That’s not what it’s all about.”
“I know, but that’s just the point. I know I have your love, and I just think it will be better not to exchange gifts. Please try to understand.”
Finally she agreed, and I hung up, relieved that the ordeal was over.
A year before, Ed had moved to Waynesboro, which was close enough for visits, and I was grateful that we would be spending Christmas Day together, but it wasn’t the same as those happy days when Grandma and Uncle Raymond had been there. I remembered how we would all decorate the tree and sing carols while Lear bounced from one to the other. Then I’d fix a turkey for all of us, and the old house would seem to smile.
Now Grandma and Uncle Raymond were in the nursing home, Ed had his own home, and Lear was growing old. Oh, Lear still bounced, but he did it with less fervor, and I pushed away the heartbreaking thought that nothing is forever.
“You’re feeling sorry for yourself again,” I warned myself, speaking aloud. There was more to it than that, though. It wasn’t just the thought of no Christmas gifts or the fact that I would miss our usual activities. And suddenly I knew what it was.
I was feeling blue, even depressed, because I didn’t have anybody I could do something for. I missed the flurry of buying little surprises, of baking, of knitting some little surprise for Chuck.
Knitting! That was it. I had piles of yarn left over from past projects, and it didn’t take a lot of yarn to make children’s items. Before I could lose my joy, I ran to the telephone and called our minister.
“Cleve, does Mountain Mission School take gifts of knitted things for the children?”
“I don’t know,” he said, “but I’ll give you the address, and you can ask.”
I wrote a letter as soon as I hung up, and in two days, the answer came back:
Dear Mrs. Campbell,
We always need things for the children. As you probably know, we take children from broken homes, children who are orphaned, any child who needs a home. We take them from infancy until they finish school
Mountain Mission School is located in Grundy, an area that, I am told, gets “more than cold” in winter, so I planned my projects with that in mind.
As soon as Chuck read the letter to me, I got out my yarn and he went through it with me, separating the colors and helping me mark them in Braille.
“We can afford any needles you don’t have, and it won’t cost much to send the package.” I heard my own enthusiasm echoed in his voice.
“Do you think you can have everything finished by Christmas?”
“Of course I can.” Silently I offered up a prayer that I could. I had a challenge, a purpose.
Soon friends found out about my project and began to bring me yarn, either left over from their own work or bought for my project. The garments began to pile up on the shelf that we had cleared for them in the linen cabinet.
There were baby sweaters with caps and bootees to match. There were sweaters for older children. There were hoods and hats. There were mittens and scarves. And there were even two pairs of cable-knit socks for the teenagers. Listening to the talking book or the stereo, I knitted day and night, and I was never happier.
At last, it was all finished. The last item had been packed and the package was on its way.
It was the week before Christmas, and I still had to finish the sweater I’d been knitting in secret
for Chuck. When he came home the day before, I’d heard a bag rustling, and I knew there would be some tiny surprise for me too. My whole being was filled with a sense of warmth and love.
Now I would have to hurry. I have always made my Christmas cakes well in advance, but that year there hadn’t been time. I got to work, chopping nuts, searching for the recipe that I systematically lose every year–and always manage to find just in time. And as I worked I remembered ….
The year in the country that Gray Boy had climbed to the top of the Christmas tree. The year Nez and I had hung the Christmas tree from the ceiling to keep Miss Muffet from knocking it over. The year Uncle Raymond and I had alienated Grandma for several hours by chasing a barking Lear around the house with a frozen turkey, Uncle Raymond gobbling like a turkey.
“You’re scaring little Lear,” Grandma said, and retired to her bedroom for the rest of the afternoon.
None of us had known just how much we had, I thought as I chopped the orange peel, and I made myself a promise to hold the bright jewels of those good times close on the shelf of my memory.
On Christmas Eve they came, the letters from the school. There was a small greeting from almost every child and teacher, and they all spoke of my generosity. But I wasn’t generous. I had given from the loneliness of my heart, had given to fill that empty spot where so many loved ones had lived for so many years: Mama and Daddy, Grandma and Uncle Raymond, Mr. Cronise and Miss Lena, and all the others from the School for the Blind.
And Miss Muffet, and Sly, and Bootie, and Buttons, and Mouser–all those people and animals who were no longer with me, except in my heart.
Then, into my kitchen and my thoughts came the sound of the young voices of carolers. The group of children who caroled every year were waiting for us, Lear and me, to come out. I like to think they came to see me, but in truth it was Lear who drew those children to our door.
“Come on, old boy,” I said, snapping on his leash. “Your public is waiting.”
As we stood together on the steps, it began to snow, soft, gentle flakes touching my hair and Lear’s fur like a friendly hand. And as I listened to the familiar words, I realized the truth of my giving. So often we say that we don’t give to receive, but that year I had given and received a gift
in kind. Welcome though the knitted items were, I finally understood the truth of the gift. To the children, the fact that someone had cared enough to take the time to give a gift of the work of her hands had meant more than the actual gifts. No gift of money would ever mean as much to me as those children’s words of thanks. We had all given, and we had received.
“Merry Christmas!” the carolers called as they turned and started down the walk.
Suddenly a little girl ran back to me and took my hand.
“I hope God makes you see,” she said.
She gave me a hug and Lear a pat. Without another word, she ran to join the others.
How could I tell that loving child that God had given me a gift of sight that Christmas that was more precious than the gift of physical sight?
Chuck was waiting for us when we went back inside. “You looked like a scene from Currier and Ives, with the snow coming down on you and Lear, and the carolers around you.” He helped me brush the snow out of Lear’s coat. “I wish I could give you a better Christmas.”
“There’s no way you could,” I said. “This one is special in so many ways, ways that I can’t possibly put into words.”
“I got something for you.” He took my hand.
“Well, two things, really. One is a little gift, and the other is something I’ll give you now. It’s on the piano.”
It was a tiny silver handbell, which sounded a pure, dainty note when I shook it.
“It’s not much,” he said, “but the sound is so pretty. I know how you love bells, and I thought it was something you’d like to have, something to keep you company. You, know, Phyl, I’ll probably have to go out of town to find a job. You won’t be able to come along at first, not until we’re sure the job will last.”
We both knew how much it would cost to move, especially to take along the piano and the organ.
“I know,” I said. I slipped into the circle of his arms. Soon Lear pressed between us, making sure he got his share of love.
Laughing, we reached down to pet him, trying to live for the moment, the night, for each other, for Lear.
As many of you may remember, in August 2020, Phyllis had a biopsy, and it showed Uterine Cancer.
On Monday August 24, 2020, she had surgery and afterward, follow up treatment at Augusta Health.
Sadly, Phyllis passed away at approximately 8 AM, January 13, 2021.
I’ve been given the privilege of continuing to share her work with you. I hope you enjoyed this tale.
Phyllis was like a mother to me as I’d lost mine years ago. She assisted me out of the dark place she found me cowering in. We met when she contacted me to assist her with marketing her work and we became the best of friends. Phyllis was like a mother to me and will always hold a special place in my heart. Merry Christmas Phyllis. I know you and Chuck are ringing Heaven’s joyous bells this holiday season.
For information on her books, you may visit: PhyllisStatonCampbellAuthor.com
Also, some of her works are available from the National Library Services for the Blind and Print Disabled site and their download information is listed below.
Phyllis will be deeply missed by all those who knew and loved her.
Patty L. Fletcher