The woman was on her annual mission. Her hips and knees ached as she climbed the steep stairs to the attic. The trek was getting more difficult but, this year more than ever, she was determined to complete the task. When she reached the landing, she pulled on the chain link light at the top of the stairs. As she caught her breath and felt her bones relax, she looked around.
Rows of stacked cardboard boxes lined the walls. Each was neatly marked on the end with its contents. What she was after was along the wall to her left among the Christmas decorations. She scanned the contents of the boxes – nativity set, ornaments, ornaments, candles, lights, lights, angels. That’s the one she was looking for – angels. She lifted the box from its place, put it on top of another stack and opened it.
She carefully unrolled the top bundle of tissue paper. Inside was a gold ceramic baby angel. She was lying on her stomach, wings lifted and spread. Her head was resting on her hands, elbows resting on the ground. She seemed to be looking with a keen interest at her surroundings, wondering what she could get into. The second bundle the woman unwrapped was a bookend to the first. It was another gold ceramic baby angel. This one was kneeling, arms crossed, as if in prayer, eyes gazing down reverently. He was not to be distracted by worldly things. How different two siblings can be! The woman carefully set the two cherubs atop another box.
The next bundle contained a colorful papier-mâché seraphim playing a flute. This was followed by another playing a trumpet and a third playing a lyre. The final bundle contained what she was looking for – a white metal angel carrying a basket of flowers. Her legs hung free inside her skirt, acting as clappers. When suspended by the string attached to her head, she was a pretty little bell and the woman’s favorite. She didn’t like to let her bias show because she secretly believed that the angels would know. She made sure that she displayed them all for the holidays. But she always started with the angel bell.
She placed the angel bell in the pocket of her sweater, carefully stowed the others, and made the painful climb down the stairs.
The angel bell’s place was always the same. She was hung on a nail in the breakfast room. The nail normally held a painting of a cabin in the woods. The cabin once belonged to the family and they spent many happy summers there. A friend painted the picture as a Christmas gift one year. At Christmas time, the woman removed the painting and placed it in the front hall closet for safe keeping and replaced it with the angel bell. From the nail where she was hung, the angel could look out the door-wall into the back yard and watch the winter birds.
The breakfast room was where they took all their meals. They loved to look out at the birds and squirrels and chipmunks as they ate. The woman would ring the angel bell to call her husband to dinner. As soon as she got the food to the table, she would push the angel’s tiny skirt and its little legs would make a delicate pinging as they swung from side to side. But no matter where her husband was, he always heard the bell and came to the table. This year the woman would not need to ring the bell. Her husband had passed away nearly seven months ago after fifty six years of marriage.
Although she was not really in the mood for holiday celebrations, traditions were important to the couple and the woman knew her husband would want her to carry on as best she could. And despite the dread she felt at climbing the attic stairs, bringing down the angel bell had actually given her a bit of comfort. Her angels were more real to her than she let on, even to her husband. Some nights, when she drifted between sleep and restlessness, she could hear the seraphim playing their instruments ever so quietly from their perches atop the Christmas tree branches. She could hear the angel bell swinging in tune to their music.
That evening the woman had prepared chicken noodle soup and baked a loaf of bread for her supper. This was one of her husband’s favorite winter meals. Just as she was ladling the soup into her bowl to carry into the breakfast room, she heard the angel bell ring. She was startled. Had she left the door wall open? Was the cold wind blowing in and ringing the bell? She set down the ladle and hurried into the breakfast room. The door wall was closed but the room was cold.
Seated at the table was her husband. “I heard the bell. What’s for dinner?” he said.
She grabbed hold of the back of her chair. “Is it really you?” she asked.
“Who else would it be?” he said, “Is dinner ready?”
“Yesss, it is,” she said. “I’ll get it.”
She returned to the kitchen and took another bowl from the cupboard. She ladled the soup into the second bowl and carried them both into the breakfast room. She set one before her husband and one in her place.
“My favorite!” he said, “Chicken noodle soup.”
She smiled. “I made some bread too.” She returned to the kitchen and came back with a basket of her freshly baked bread and the butter dish.
As they ate, she talked about how she missed him. She told him about things she had been doing since he died. He nodded and smiled as if he already knew what she was about to say.
When they were finished eating, she stood up to clear the dishes.
“This was a wonderful meal,” he said. “Thanks for making it.”
“Oh, it’s no trouble,” she said and carried the bowls into the kitchen. When she returned for the bread basket, he was gone.
She sat down at the table and began to cry. About an hour later, shaky and downhearted, the woman returned to the kitchen to do the dishes. That night, she tossed and turned in bed. Why did he come back only to leave her again? How could he break her heart like that all over again?
The next evening the woman decided to make a BLT for dinner using the bread she had baked. The tomatoes this time of year weren’t great but, with enough mayonnaise, the sandwich would be pass. She wasn’t all that hungry anyway. As she stood at the stove frying the bacon, she thought she heard the angel bell ring. Could this be happening again? Could she bear to see him again? She felt like her feet were glued to the kitchen floor. She turned off the burner and slowly walked toward the sound of the bell. The journey to the breakfast room may as well have been twenty miles.
When she arrived, there at the table was her husband.
“Hi,” he said, “I heard the bell. What’s for dinner?”
The woman returned to the kitchen and added some extra bacon to the pan. Then she toasted two more slices of bread. When she had prepared two BLTs, she carried them into the breakfast room.
“Will you stay this time?” she asked.
“That I can’t say,” he said. “Let’s just enjoy the time we have together.”
So, with that, the woman tried to have a normal conversation with her husband. She talked about how she had brought more Christmas ornaments down from the attic and wished she had had his help. She talked about how the kids would be coming for Christmas Eve dinner. She told him their grandson would not be coming this year because he would be going to his fiancé’s. And he nodded and smiled.
At the end of dinner, she was reluctant to leave the table. She worried that if she brought the dishes into the kitchen, he would disappear. But when she felt she could put it off no longer, she carried their plates to the sink. She hurried back to the breakfast room and he was gone, just as before. This time she did not cry but her heart was filled with sadness.
Each night after that, the same routine occurred. The angel bell would ring, her husband would appear and they would have dinner together. She had begun to prepare two meals in anticipation of his coming. She became less and less sad at the end of each visit and came to accept this limited and strange relationship. She was no longer as lonely as she had been and she could see that he was happy as well.
Christmas Eve was approaching quickly and she was excited to share this special surprise with her children. Kathleen was fifty two and single and lived about forty miles away. Peter was fifty four and married to Anna. They lived in the next town with their son Andrew who would be getting married in the spring. Andrew would not be coming to dinner this year.
On Christmas Eve, Kathleen arrived at the house first.
“How have you been, Mom?” she asked as she hung up her coat in the front hall closet.
“I am doing just fine,” said the woman.
“That’s great,” said Kathleen,” I know this must be a difficult Christmas for you. We all miss Dad. Have you thought about moving out of this big house? It might be good for you to be around more people. There’s a great senior living community in Harrisville. I can take you there if you want to visit.”
Already her daughter was nagging her about moving again. She didn’t want to move. She hated the thought of living in a senior community. She didn’t like playing cards or the thought of knitting clubs. She would change the subject.
“Would you mind helping me with the mashed potatoes?” the woman asked.
No problem,” said Kathleen, who took the hint and got to work.
Soon the doorbell rang and Peter and Anna arrived. They hung up their coats and followed the woman into the kitchen.
“Hey, Kathy,” said Peter.
“How’s it going, Pete?” said Kathleen. “You look great, Anna.”
“Thanks,” said Anna.
“Mom, have you thought about visiting that senior community in Harrisville? I hear it’s great,” said Peter.
“Not you too,” said the woman. “Kathleen has been bugging about it already. I don’t want to move. Will you two just let me be? Please?”
Kathleen and Peter looked at each other and rolled their eyes but said nothing.
When the dinner was just about ready, they all poured a glass of wine and headed into the living. They began chatting when suddenly the angel bell rang.
“Mom, was that the angel bell?” asked Kathleen.
“Yes,” said the woman, “It’s time for dinner.”
“But how …” said Kathleen.
Before she had to answer, the woman stood up and led them into the dining room. When the children could see the table, the woman turned and smiled broadly.
“Mom, I think you set too many places,” said Kathleen, “There are only four of us. “
The woman looked at her husband seated at the end of the table. He was smiling. She began to tear up.
Peter said, “I think it’s nice that Mom set Dad’s place. It’s the first Christmas he isn’t here and this is a nice way to remember him.”
The woman had to fight to hold back her tears. It was clear only she could see him. If she told her children he was there, they would surely think she was crazy and insist she move into that senior community again.
Instead, she sat down at her place and said, “Who wants to lead us in prayer?”
After dinner, everyone carried his plate to the kitchen. When the woman returned to the dining room, her husband was gone. After the children left, she returned to the dining room table by herself and began to cry. Her wonderful surprise had been ruined.
The next day was Christmas and the woman would be eating at home. Her son and daughter had their own plans for the day. She normally enjoyed having the leftovers from the Christmas Eve meal. She prepared two plates and when the angel bell rang, she carried them into the breakfast room. She and her husband shared a lovely meal. Before she cleared the dishes, she walked around table and kissed him on the forehead.
“Good-bye, my love,” she said.
“Good-bye, my darling,” he said.
Tomorrow she would pack up the angel bell and return it to the attic until next Christmas.