My mother left when I was 14. Daddy sat on the floor in a corner. He drank too much. But I had my six brothers and my five sisters.
As the oldest girl, my job was clear: take care of the younger ones. It never occurred to me that I might need someone to take care of me.
I have no idea how I kept enough wits about me to learn anything in school. Somehow I managed to pass tests and classes, though I skipped school every other day. Someone had to stay home and tend babies, so my sister and I alternated. When I did go to school, my mind was more on babies and what we’d eat for supper than on math or adverbs.
There was always a sick baby. We usually had two babies in diapers. No Pampers in those days. It kept a girl on her toes.
Bologna sandwiches. My sister and I were good helpers in the kitchen before Mama left. But on our own, bologna sandwiches and rice.
My memories of 1958 and ’59 are dim and foggy. We just walked through it one day at a time in the survival mode like soldiers in a war zone counting sunsets and praying for God’s help.
I remember praying for help, especially at night before falling asleep.
I’d given my heart to the Lord when I was thirteen during Vacation Bible School at church. After that, I felt different on the inside. I believed my prayers were being heard.
However, things on the outside worsened day by day. Daddy without a job, but somehow he bought cigarettes and alcohol. Mama, leaving and coming back, leaving and coming back. When home, her frustration could be volcanic.
I remember cockroaches. No matter which rent house we lived in, there were cockroaches. Mice, too. And how they’d scatter when I turned on the light. That was the only power I had.
How did we manage Santa and Christmas?
The Salvation Army. They saved us by bringing a decorated tree, food, and gifts. They always came through, year after year. To this day, I believe they were the hands and feet of God, there just to take care of me and to relieve all worries for a few days.
Yesterday, I was in and out of stores. And there they were: Salvation Army workers standing outside stores beside their kettles, ringing hand bells. As I approached one store, a bell ringer said, “Merry Christmas!”
When I came out of the store, I put a bill in the kettle and commented, “I have enormous respect for what you are doing. The Army helped my family when I was a kid.”
“The Salvation Army has been helping people for over 150 years,” he said.
When I asked if I could take a photo of him with the red pot, he said, “Yes, and you are the first person to ever ask to take my picture as a bell ringer!”
He seemed as pleased as a kid in a peppermint store.
Today is cold. And I think of that bell ringer. I hope he is wearing a warm coat and toboggan.
This bell ringing thing funded the relief my family received when I was a girl. It still funds such work at Thanksgiving and Christmas. I will always love this organization.
May God bless the bell ringers, Salvation Army, and those who drop money in red kettles.
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Photo by Pat Durmon of a worker for the Salvation Army in Mountain Home, Arkansas. December, 2017.