I have been a writer since I was a kid. I have always loved telling stories and, more importantly, I have always loved using my words to make other people happy. Believe me when I tell you how humbled I am any time someone contacts me to say that they were moved by something I wrote or that they learned something or else, that they had a laugh or two that brightened their day. Those comments fill me up and inspire me to continue writing words for others to read. It is a large part of the reason why I created this blog.
The thing about having a blog, at least for me, is that I rarely actually meet the people I interact with. Those who comment and share my work do so, most often, on the Internet, from the comfort of their home. I never see them and they never see me but, just the same, a familiarity comes to be and a relationship starts to take shape. While we never meet, my social media “friends” help shape my life. I am enriched by their cyber presence. I am comforted in their binary embrace. Over time, they have become “real” to me. I consider myself the better for having had that happen.
So, I write. I create. I share. And, hopefully, I help make things a tiny bit better….for my friends and, because of my friends.
The story that I wish to share with you today involves a recap of a story I posted just prior to Christmas and a more, in-depth look into the circumstances of something unexpected that spiralled out of that post. That post was entitled, “I Hope Your Can Hear the Bell” and can be found here.
In “I Hope You Can Hear the Bell”, I talked about a dozen or so Christmas books that I had used in my classroom during the course of my thirty-year teaching career. These were books that had become beloved by my students over the years. Books that I wanted to share with my readers so that they, in turn, might share them with their children and grand-children. I have always considered good books to be like treasure and, as such, I have always wanted to share them with as many people as possible so that the magic and beauty they contain can extend ever onward.
As I listed the books, I saved the Chris Van Allsburg book, The Polar Express, for last because it was the most requested and loved Christmas book in my collection. Children in every class I ever taught were drawn to the message of believing in something greater than themselves. They loved that the first gift of Christmas…..Santa’s sleigh bell….only sounded for those who believed and, since they were all young kids and truly believed in the magic of Christmas, to them, the book felt like a special secret that only children knew. It sought to validate their belief system. It reinforced their willingness to trust.
I selected The Polar Express as the most popular of all of my Christmas books because experience had proven that to be true. I found reading the book aloud to be very special. If truth be told, I always considered it an honour to invite a new group of students each year into Van Allsburg’s wonderful world; to share that secret that only a child can know. Whenever I read aloud and got the end of the story, I would grow silent. Then I would reach into my pocket and pull out a cloth bag. Inside that bag would be a tiny sleigh bell. The kids always inched forward as I pulled the little bell out. I always gently shook the bell. The kids always heard it ring. The magic was always, always real. They believed and so did I.
So, when the writing for that blog post was completed, all that was left for me to do was to find a suitable photo to act as my “cover photo”. I try to use my own photos as much as possible, for copyright reasons. But, I no longer had the little bell so, I could not take a picture of it. My next course of action was to go to the public domain photos that are available. But, try as I might, I could not get the photo that seemed worthy of my post and how I felt about The Polar Express. So, as a last resort, I simply Googled “Santa’s Sleigh Bell” and the photo above came on to my screen. THAT was the photo I had been waiting for. So, even though it was not my photo, I copied it, attached it to my post and hit the “PUBLISH” button and sent my story on its way to my loving readers.
Not long after that, the guilt set in.
Some people would have ignored that guilty feeling; rationalizing that the odds were slim that the owner of that photo would ever come in contact with my post. But, what if they did!? What if they were checking out other sleigh bell photos and saw their picture on the link to my post. I knew in my mind that they would have every right to be upset and that I really wouldn’t have any excuse for having done what I did. So, with my conscience suitably guilty, I decided to try and make things right.
That afternoon, I found out that the photo belonged to a company called Magical Bells. On their website, they had a “Contact Us” page. I filled out their form, explaining that I had written a post that included a section on The Polar Express and that I had wanted a beautiful sleigh bell for my cover photo and had used theirs. I offered to pay them a fee in order to keep the photo but, I said that understood if they were upset and told them I would remove the photo if they directed me to do so. I hit the “SUBMIT” button and then, I waited for a reply.
I must admit that I was expecting the worst. The Internet is a wild and woolly place, at times. There are lots of angry people out there, eager to argue for sport. There are dangerous people, too. Folks who want to gain access to your world in order to steal your information, your money, your identity and more. There are lots of competitive folks out there in cyberspace, as well. These folks wouldn’t think twice about denying a favour to someone who might, as a result, take marketshare away from them.
So, I sat there by my computer and wondered about the reaction of the person on the other side of the screen, as they were being notified that “You Have Mail”. I waited and I waited. Finally, a day or so later, I had my answer. I had mail from the owner of Magical Bells.
As I clicked on the email link, I did so in the same way that The Grinch did on Christmas morning, high atop Mt. Crumpit. He listened for the sound of crying and of sadness but, instead, what he heard was merry….very! He found that sound puzzling. For me, I opened that email and was prepared for a finger-wagging blast but instead, I found gratitude and thankfulness and compliments. Like the Grinch, I was momentarily taken aback, too.
The author of that email, and owner of Magical Bells, was a man named Mike Frueh. He reassured me that he wasn’t upset about the fact that I had used his photo without permission and that, in reality, he felt honoured that I thought it was beautiful enough to use in the first place. He said that he had read my post and thought it was wonderful. He talked about how important The Polar Express was to him and his family and how thankful he was that I was promoting the same view. To top it all off, he offered to send me one of his special Polar Express sleigh bells, free of charge, as thanks for writing the post, using the photo and for including a link to his website within that post.
Wait!? What!? No! I didn’t deserve that. I had broken a rule and wasn’t deserving of a reward. I wrote back to Mike and told him how gracious his offer was but that I did not do what I did in writing the post and using the photo in the hopes of obtaining material reward. I did it because I believe in the magic of a book and I told Mike that he owed me nothing. I was just grateful that he wasn’t upset. But, Mike would not take “No” for an answer and insisted on sending me a bell, free of charge, from the U.S. to Canada.
This is what he sent to me. The sleigh bell arrived in this lovely gift box. The box is of sturdy construction and the ribbon lines up perfectly on the top and bottom sections of the box. The box was smooth and clean as a whistle. I know the old adage of not judging a book by its cover but, in this case, the quality of the box was indicative of the attention to detail of the items I was about to find inside.
So, I opened the box. The top slid off easily. Inside I could see that there was a red, cloth bag. But, the more I looked, the more I could tell there was more inside that box than that. So, I put my hand inside of the box and started pulling things out. Let me show you what I found.
The first thing I pulled out of the box was a card. The card was green, showed the bell and proclaimed it as “The Universal Symbol to Believe.” But, there was something important on the other side of the card. So, I turned it over.
Sweet! It was a note from Santa Claus, himself! What an inspirational message to receive from Jolly Old St. Nick. I was loving this box so far. But, the surprises weren’t over just yet. So, I reached back into the box and…
…pulled out a golden ticket to ride on the actual Polar Express train! Now, that is a cool extra surprise. But, there was still more! As I reached inside the box to pull out the big red cloth bag, I noticed a smaller red, cloth bag. What could this be? Let’s find out, shall we?!
The small red cloth bag contained a pin that could be worn as a tie tack, a lapel pin, a brooch or whatever your imagination could conjure up. On the pin was the single word, “Believe”. How appropriate. And now, for the big red cloth bag……
….and there it was! The first gift of Christmas! A gorgeous sleigh bell from Santa’s sleigh! Polished silver, this bell is handcrafted with care and love. That much is apparent from the lovely straps, to the beautiful construction of the bell itself, to finally, the crystal clear sound of the bell when it is shaken.
What a keepsake. I am humbled to have been given this. But, the funny thing is that there is more to the story than simply the unboxing of this gift and the resolution of my blogging crimes. There is the story about what inspired the making of these bells in the first place. For these bells truly are a labour of Love, as you shall soon see.
Every life has pivotal moments. Some are easier to see, such as the birth of a child or the winning of a championship in sports. But, there are many other moments that appear in the guise of the ordinary events of our day; moments that only reveal the magnitude of their importance with the benefit of hindsight. Such is true of my
Back in 2006, Mike’s son, Evan, asked for a sleigh bell for Christmas JUST LIKE IN THE POLAR EXPRESS. Mike’s wife, Christina, searched high and low and could not find anything that seemed just right. So, she decided to create her own for her son to have. In 2014, for reasons that Mike has not shared (and I have not asked about) Christina passed away, leaving Mike and Evan on their own.
Evan had two good friends named Owen and Gavin. Owen and Gavin were brothers and they were going through their own tough time because they had lost their father, Chad, to cancer, leaving them on their own with their mother, Jenna. Because Jenna’s family and Mike’s had been close for many years, they found comfort in each other’s company; a sense of mutual understanding that can only be achieved by those who have gone through the same trying circumstances. Over time, the heaviness of grief lifted and love blossomed between Mike and Jenna. Soon, they were married and, along with the three boys, became a new family.
The making of bells has become a way for Mike and Jenna to honour their late spouses, as well as, to share the message of Love and Family and of Believing in ourselves and in each other, with the greater world.
On behalf of all of us who are reading my words, I want to thank Mike and his Family for presenting me with a gift that is so beautiful, in and of itself but, also, that stands for so much more that is important and positive and reaffirming in our world. I write my words, you folks make Christina’s bells…..in doing so, we both hope to make things better for others and for ourselves.
I am glad that I have met Mike via this blog. I am richer for having learned his story. I know I will think of him and his family each time I see that bell and I can promise you this, Mike and Jenna, Evan, Owen and Gavin, I will ALWAYS hear its sound and I will ALWAYS Believe.
***The Magical Bells website can be found here.