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WEDNESDAY, DEC. 16, 2009, 11:59 P.M.

One Little Bell

     Standing just beside the front door of the busy store, bundled up to stay warm in weather that has turned brutal over night, she sees all kinds of people in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
    She sees the ones who are determined, who get there early, walking up to the door with a purposeful stride. They’ve got a list. A timeline. A budget. They’re in charge.

    She can tell who is just out for the fun of it,  happy to listen to canned carols playing over the sound system. Feeding off the energy of the crowd and the season. Bargain hunting as a sport.

    She watches the children in hats and mittens, along for the ride, holding onto a parent’s hand, being pulled along as they dawdle, stopping to stare at the Christmas displays, or to peer into the shiny red kettle in front of her as they drop in a coin.
    She sees the others; the ones who are tightlipped with worry. Who carry purses and wallets that don’t hold near enough to buy what they’d hoped to get. Those who don’t have enough for what they need; forget about the extras. They walk into the store like tired soldiers heading into a battle. Already outgunned and out of ammunition.

     She stands there, ringing the bell, shifting her weight from foot to foot trying to stay warm, watching us all come and go...

 Everything is so much bigger than real life this time of year. The crowd. The traffic. The cart full of food you’d never buy in July or February. The jumbo rolls of wrapping paper and the six-pack bundles of Scotch tape. The stress.
    But where she stands, the setup is always the same. One person. One bell. One kettle. One goal. Big changes made one donation at a time.
    Since 1891, when Salvation Army Captain Joseph McFee put out the first iron kettle for donations to feed the poor in San Francisco, (the bell ringers came later) the kettles have been tweaking our self-absorbed holiday spirit and reminding us that there is  real and dire need in our community. Sometimes right beside us.
    You would think that one hand ringing one little bell would be lost in the cacophony of the season.  But, perhaps, that simplicity is exactly why it breaks through. The sound rings sweet and clear, piercing the chaos like a child’s voice, making us look. Making us listen. And, if we really listen, making us act.
    Every year, you hear about gold coins tossed in a red kettle somewhere. Or hundred dollar bills found mixed in with all the singles. But what does the real good is the collective giving of the rest of us. The quarters, the dollar bills, the handful of change scooped up from the bottom of your purse or pocket.

    The bell-ringer will go home and put her feet up and get warm again. But I can’t help but wonder if she’ll think about what she witnessed as she goes through the rest of her day.
    About those who take and those who give. About those of us who need and those of us who have more than enough to share.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons,” and can be reached at

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Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country.