Jennifer Graham

lives and writes in Gwynedd Valley

Ting-ting-a-ling! Ting-ting-a-ling. . .

I heard the familiar ringing of the bell before I saw the red kettle. A traditional herald of the holidays, the Salvation Army bells' merry song once filled my heart with holiday cheer.

But when I heard the first ting-ting-a-lings of 2007, I rushed past the bell-ringer, several paces ahead of Carolyn, my daughter. Avoiding eye contact and clutching my purse, I muttered, "Thanks. Catch you on my way out."

With a tight budget and too little time to stop and listen to the bells, busy-ness fatigues my spirit and practicality grinches my generosity.

Carolyn stopped me. "Mom! You always give them something to remember Baba!"

Suddenly, I was 7 years old again, walking hand-in-hand with Baba, my grandfather, as we strolled past Scranton's once-elegant department stores. Baba and I had only recently gotten acquainted. My father's death that summer had brought us back to my mother's hometown. I didn't know this old man well, but I did understand that whatever Baba had was his to share with those who had even less. I had noticed the holes in his old coat, his worn-out but polished shoes, and that he lit and relit cigar stubs when his pipe tobacco was gone.

But he never walked past a Salvation Army kettle without stopping to wish the bellringer well. As they chatted, he would press a few coins from his pocket into my hand, and, together, we would listen to the cascade of musical notes as each one fell into the kettle. "That money will do more good in there than in here," he'd say, patting his empty pocket.

I loved Baba's simple kindness. Back then, I thought he was just tossing spare change into the kettle. I came to realize, though, that he had no spare change because he had no money to spare.

Just enough to share.

An eccentric old man of few words, Baba had been well-educated, artistic, and a very successful automobile dealer in Scranton while coal was still king. But the Depression left him rich with a showroom of new cars and nearly penniless after he paid off his debts to Detroit. He lost his home and his swagger during those years, but not his work ethic or generosity.

During the worst of times, he worked in a factory, earning a few extra dollars a month cleaning the plant's bathrooms. By the time he was an 80-year-old widower, he lived in a one-room flat, literally on the wrong side of the tracks, refusing help from my mother. I wonder now whether he sometimes found fellowship and sustenance in the Salvation Army kitchen. His handwritten will ended with "Want a short service and no flowers. Drop a coin in Sal. Army kettle at Xmas."

When they were little, I'd told my kids about Baba's generosity dozens of times as we joyfully dropped spare change into the kettle. Who was this grinch living in my body now?

Smiling and sighing, I opened my wallet and scooped up all the spare change I had. Together, we walked over and dropped our coins into the pot.

"God bless you!" called out the soldier, waving and smiling with more thanks than our meager donation deserved.

I knew then that I had received much more than I'd given.

Through holiday magic, a stranger's kind words and ting-a-linging bell, Carolyn's smile, and the lingering feel of Baba's generous hand in mine reminded me of the lasting richness found in giving - and that fills my heart with yuletide cheer.

E-mail Jennifer Graham at jennifermgraham@comcast.net.