The Bells: A Story of Inspiration
By Marci Laudenslager
Reprinted from: For Ringers Only, November/December 2001
I could hear my mother calling from upstairs. She was asking me if I had seen her pair of black patent leather heels, which were, of course, on my feet. I clopped around on the hardwood floor of our living room, pretending that my tiny six-year-old feet were big enough for her size seven-and-a-half shoes.
I hobbled up the stairs and into her bedroom as she ran about frantically, trying to fasten her pearl earrings with one hand and tie her silk cherry-red bow with the other. She was late for the most spectacular handbell concert of the Christmas season—one everyone simply called “Saint James” after the host church in Allentown.
Sliding her shoes off of my feet and onto her own, my mother asked me if I was almost ready to go and I nodded, smiling at her through the porous fabric of my Christmas dress, which I had pulled up and over my head, exposing my green leotards. She sighed fondly at my antics and gathered my hand in hers – leading the way down the stairs to the car.
Saint James was a charming stone church with three long isles paved with plush red carpet. There were two towering Christmas trees, each speckled with miniature white lights and red velvet bows – one on either side of the altar; and nuzzled in the space between the altar and a barely concave chestnut railing was a row of tables. The bell tables were heavy contraptions with adjustable metal legs and wooden tops, which were covered with eleven thick, red cushions. Nestled on top of the cushions were the bells – newly polished bronze works of art. I wanted so badly to touch them, but I knew that I had to wear white gloves to handle the bells – I would leave fingerprints otherwise. Besides, “the oils in our hands tarnish the bronze,” my mother would say.
So I wouldn’t touch, I would only watch as gloved hands removed the bells from their cases and placed them carefully on the table. My mother would carry six at a time with her fingers hooked around the looped, plastic handles. When the cases were empty, I’d help slide them under the hollow tunnel created by the tables and the raised floor of the sanctuary. But I was careful not to get in the way as two ringers walked around the perimeter of the bell tables, attaching a floor-length pleated crimson skirting to the foam pads with Velcro.
I continued to watch silently from the wide chestnut railing as the number of ringers in the sanctuary dwindled as they disappeared to one of the Sunday school rooms to touch up their make-up and perform various other preparatory rituals –one of which was prayer.
I stood quietly in the doorway, my eyes fixed on my mothers closed, quivering eyelids. She always wore two complimentary shades of eye shadow – a soft, smoky color spread across the base of her lashes to the thin crease in her eyelids, while a frosted, white haze melted into the smoke and faded away at her brow bone. My mother had beautiful slate-blue eyes, which I could not see as she bowed her head in prayer. When they all whispered “Amen,” my mother would glance at the doorway, knowing I was there waiting, and give me a wink – her eyes twinkling with excitement and anticipation. I ran to her, flinging my arms clumsily around her neck, feeling the warm touch of her gloved hands on my cheek. From the balcony, I looked down at the concert below, my chin resting on the brass banister so that it wouldn’t obstruct my view.
I stared intently as they played Carol of the Bells, their arms circling in front of their bodies with smooth, yet vigorous, motions. For most of the piece, the notes were sharp and swift, and I sat on the edge of my pew, gazing at the way my mother would pick up two bells in each hand and alternate between all four with brisk movements. And, just when I thought she couldn’t handle any more bells at one time, she would loop one of the four on her pinky finger and swipe another, leaving an abandoned bell dangling in the air still singing to me from down below.
But then the music would be hushed, the tones long and lingering. My mother’s arms would trace large, imaginary circles in the air as she tilted the bell forward and gently brought it back to her breast. It was almost as if she was reaching for something far off in the distance and then, deciding that it was beyond her touch, she would lower her arms and try again.
All the while, the voices of her bells resonated in the archways of the old stone church until she hushed them by drawing each one to her chest. At the end of the song, she lowered her bells silently to the table as the audience exploded into applause. I don’t think she saw them though, because she was looking up at where I was sitting, giving me a wink with her sparkling eyes. She was beautiful when she rang – just beautiful.
I sat next to my brother, Joshua, on the piano bench, swinging my legs like a pendulum, back and forth, as my mother arranged her bells on our dining room table. She had fashioned a makeshift bell cushion from couch pillows and old blankets. It was nothing like the scarlet cushions she used at Heidelberg UCC, the small church that had been supporting my mother’s bell choir since its formation in the seventies. As I sat there watching her arrange the bells on our table, I notice that some of the plastic handles were white and others were black – much like the keys of a piano. Since I had already learned to play the piano, and thus, read music, I began to wonder if ringing handbells was the same. But instead of pressing down on the notes, I would just pick them up and ring them.
My scattered thoughts were interrupted by the familiar tune of Happy Birthday, and I shifted my attention to my mother. She was playing the entire song by herself, and I squirmed with curiosity, leaning forward to watch her hands as they wove back and forth, transferring from one bell to the next, carefully placing each run bell back in its original place before lifting up another.
“We can do that, Mommy,” I told her. A bewildered look came over her face and she straightened the red wooden pencil that was nestled between the tip of her ear and her loose golden curls. I wasn’t sure what she had needed the pencil for because she wasn’t using any music, but I grabbed my brother by the hand and dragged him along with me to my mother’s side. She dug into her oversized bag of bell supplies and drew out two pairs of white gloves.
“Do you know how to hold the bells?” she asked.
Gingerly, we each held a bell in our gloved hands as she formed our awkward fingers around the plastic handles. Looking down at my bell, I saw the letter “C5” in large black glossy letters and asked my mother if that was the same as middle C on the piano. Nodding her head with approval, she told us to go ahead and ring our bells.
In my mind, I pictured my mother’s own graceful, circular motions and tried to emulate those movements that I had seen her perform countless times. With a picture of my mother in the back of my mind, the bell in my hand didn’t seem awkward at all. The flowing patterns of my arms, the gentle flicking movements of my wrists and the tones that came spilling off of the lip of the bell were all too familiar – as if I had learned it all before.
So I experimented with this new toy of mine by giving my wrist a harsh snap and observing the rich sound that bellowed from the bronze mouth of the little bell. I drew it close to my chest and listened closely as the sound softened and slowly dwindled away. I rung the bell again, but this time I reached out as far as my arm could stretch and, ever so quietly, the bell responded with the utmost obedience.
Pleased with what I was hearing, I picked up another bell, and then another. I began to weave my hands back and forth, carefully placing each rung bell in its original place on the makeshift cushion before picking up another,
The following week, my brother and I stood side by side behind a heavy wooden table with adjustable metal legs, our bells resting on a single scarlet cushion. And, with gloved hands, we rang Happy Birthday to our eighty-year-old great-grandmother while our mother looked on with tearful, smiling eyes. I was just seven years old.
The corridors of Jordan Lutheran Church were endless and uncarpeted, so each time my chunky platform heels struck the linoleum tiles, a clopping sound would ricochet off the walls and echo out in all directions. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if there was someone behind me or if I was just hearing the noise from my own shoes. Despite the fact that I was in a church, my home church, I always picked up my pace when walking through this particular hallway.
But that night, my childish fears had been mildly assuaged by the dissonant sounds of my mother’s beginner handbell choir. It was their first season of rehearsals, and on Wednesday nights, after I was finished with choir practice, I would walk to the left wing of the church and wait for my mother to drive me home before she returned to the sanctuary for her own choir practice. There was no need to have friends drive me home anymore. I was perfectly happy to wait quietly for my mother – she was the director.
As I neared the practice room I could hear her voice. “You want to tilt the lip of the bell so the clapper hits just like this. And then follow through by bringing your arm in a full circle away from your body. To damp, just press the lip lightly to your chest. Just pick up a bell, any which one, and we’ll all try it together.”
They were a group of fast learners. After only a few short weeks they were able to read handbell notation, and their ability to play with dynamics was improving with every session. I marveled at their progress, my mother’s included, as I sneaked in the back door, trying not to make any noise. My mother was standing on the director’s stool, towering a good foot and a half above her ringers. She had seen me come in and flashed a warm smile in my direction.
“They sounded great, Mom,” I said to her in the car on the way home.
“Oh they do, don’t they? I can’t believe how quickly they’re catching on.”
She went on to tell me about all of the things they had accomplished in rehearsal that night and she enumerated her future plans for the choir.
“I think we’ll surely have something together by Christmas,” she said with that same familiar twinkle in her eyes.
Having a choir of her own was exciting and new, and although she had some doubts about her ability as a director, I knew better. She was a wonderful director and everyone knew it, including Heidelberg. They chose her to be their director as well, but that was before the formation of this new choir at Jordan Lutheran.
“The Area II conference is in Ithaca this year,” she said.
Area 2 corresponded to a specific region of the northeast whose boundaries were set by Handbell Musicians of America. I knew this because, as children, my brother and I had accompanied my mother to one or two of these conferences. They had always looked like so much fun and I knew full well that my mother anticipated them every year.
“I wondered if you would want to come along and ring. It would be good experience for you to perform in Ithaca before joining Heidelberg in the fall,” she said.
I was thrilled at the propositi9on. The thought of being swept into this world my mother adored so much was overwhelming (in the fondest sense of the word). I felt a great sense of comfort knowing that my mother had complete confidence in me despite the fact that I hadn’t seriously picked up a bell since my great-grandmother’s birthday party.
It was four o’clock in the afternoon, only two more solid hours of rehearsal remaining, and everyone was unusually relaxed for it being so close to the most important concert of the season. Resting my white, gloved hands on top of my bells, I leaned my head back to stare at the wrought iron chandeliers that hung from the stone cathedral ceiling. In the background, the sounds of bells clinking together were accompanied by opening and shutting cases and the typical chatter. The ringers were finishing setting up for Cappriccio.
I had already grabbed a set of mallets from underneath the tables, and my bells were all in order so I stood in position, passing an occasional bell down the table to whoever was asking for it. Returning my attention to the architecture, I followed the line of the stone arches with my eyes, down the wall to the scones. There must have been ten sconces on either side of the chapel, and I wondered if they had ever held wax candles – the ones that were now considered a fire hazard. Following the row of sconces from the front to the back of the cathedral, I thought that the aisles seemed shorter now than they did when I was a child.
Realizing that I was daydreaming, I glanced at the other ringers and wondered if they ever looked around the church the way I always did. I figured that they probably didn’t, this being “old hat” for most of them. But I couldn’t contain myself. After all, this was going to be my first experience at Saint James from the opposite side of the tables.
“Marcilly,” sang my mother’s voice.
I turned my attention to the director’s podium to see her standing there smiling at my vacant stares. She asked me if I was lost, as she often did when I appeared to be off in my own little world. We exchanged no words – words were unnecessary when I could read her thoughts in her eyes and she could read my thoughts in mine.
We had always had a close relationship, but this year had been different. In the months leading up to Saint James, my mother had watched my successes and struggles as I tried to emulate her movements and her musical expressions. It was then that I learned how large her shoes really were, and I began to wonder if I would ever be able to wear them without falling down.
Letting my mind run off once again, I recollected the past winter season – my first with Heidelberg. Every so often, I would stand at our library table at home with bells scattered about on the large, red foam, wanting to curse the composer for having written such an impossible hand pattern.
On one occasion, my mother, knowing that I was frustrated, popped her head in the door and asked if I needed a hand, and of course I replied that I needed much more than that. She dismissed my negativity, picked up the bells, and wrote a few short notes on my music.
When you reach over to mart lift your G5, you should shift the F-sharp out of your way so that you have room to pick up that E for the Shelly. Otherwise, you run out of space and time. Try that and see if it works better for you,” she said as I stood there with my mouth hanging open and a how-did-she-do-that look spread across my face. My mother was amazing – probably the greatest handbell ringer I’d ever seen, but too modest to ever admit it to even herself.
Returning from my mental tangent, I saw that it was almost seven o’clock. I felt my stomach start to flutter as I waited in the changing room with the rest of the ringers. Not able to stand still, I walked the network of dark hallways and crept through a tiny door that looked out into the sanctuary from behind one of the marvelous Christmas trees.
I could feel my mouth stretching into a smile that felt like it was too large for my fifteen-year-old visage as I counted the number of recognizable faces in the crowd. Everyone was there to see my mother’s debut as Heildelberg’s new director, and I couldn’t have been happier. I wanted everyone to be as proud of her as I was.
I clutched my long, black dress with one hand and hurried down the hallway to join the choir in the foyer. We joined hands as my mother led us in prayer. She spoke softly, and I could hear her voice quiver with emotion. I looked adoringly across the circle at her and marveled at how everything about her was genuine. She was an absolute angel, and anyone who had ever looked into her eyes knew that.
I wanted to make her proud of me that night. I wanted her to know how much I treasured all of the gifts she gave me, especially the gift of bells. So that night I rang with every ounce of passion my heart had to offer. During Cappriccio I gripped the long birch stems of my mallets, pounding out frantic, six-eight rhythms on the bass bells while the trebles carried flowing, thick harmonies over the underlying beat that spilled forth from the mouths of my bells. But when the song changed, so did I, as I allowed myself to be taken in by the music and the singing tones.
As I stood next to my fellow ringers, I could feel the music flowing between us as we juggled melodies back and forth with fluid arms. The music was radiant as it rose from the lips of the bells and wrapped itself around the captive audience.
As we played In the Bleak Midwinter, I pleaded with the bells over and over for those long, mournful tones I adored so much as child, and they responded with a moan as hushed as winter wind. I reached out with my arms, bells in hands, just as I had seen my mother do for so many years. And, deciding that the distance was out of my reach, I drew the bells back to my chest and reached out again with a yearning that was wonderfully overpowering.
I was left exhausted. I had given everything to the bells and, in return, they had come to life as they sang with voices joyous one moment, and in a second’s time, they were wailing, crying and then laughing again. All the while, their marvelous tones were resonating in the hollow, stone arches until we chose to silence them by pulling them to our chests on my mother’s cue.
As the concert drew to a close, she lowered her hands to her sides and we responded by resting our bells on the crimson pads of form. The audience was standing, applauding, and cheering, but I’m not so sure she heard all of it.
She was smiling at me through her slate-blue eyes, which soon welled up with tears. As I gazed back at her through tears of my own, I knew I had not only given my-everything to the bells that night, I had also given my-everything to her. I sang to her with a voice that had once been all her own, and now we shared that voice. Whether it was spirited or mournful, it was ours – it was beautiful.
I might have been sad knowing that was my last Saint James concert, but I realized that the end of my time with Heidelberg did not signify the end of my handbell playing. Nor did it mark a cessation in the close relationship I had developed with my mother. Our mutual love for handbells would always be constant, no matter how far I strayed from her. It was then that I accepted the fact that I would never be able to fill my mother’s shoes, because with tools that she had given to me, I was already making a pair of my own.