When I was little I lived in a small town in the middle of the Michigan mitt. Back then the church comprised a center point for my family’s life, literally and figuratively. We lived so close to church we walked to it for services. The bell called us half an hour before, ten minutes before, and then finally right at the start of worship.
The church bell was real back then and had to be rung manually. A long rope lead from the bell up in the tower down to the ground where a guy by the name of Harold pulled it. Harold had had polio as a child and one side of his body didn’t work. He walked crooked and could barely stand but the half of his body that did work was strong enough to ring the bell. He did it promptly and proudly.
Harold’s face never showed expression, his features were frozen. As a result he rarely talked and was basically a quiet guy. Nevertheless, he was a presence in our town. He lived with his two sisters and mowed the lawn with a manual mower. A difficult feat even for someone with full use of his limbs.
He made his way to work on foot, moving slowly but determinedly. I was frightened of him because of his infirmity, but was also secretly fond of him because as far as I was concerned he was the most important man in town. Harold, you see, owned the candy store. Who else could be more deserving of a little girl’s undying devotion than the candy man? To this day the sound of bells moves me to pick up a pack of Twizzlers.
When my family moved from the small town in the middle of Michigan’s mitt to a more substantial city complete with suburbs and super highways, the church bells of my youth fell silent. There is no center to a suburb, and people do not live within walking distance of church. There’s no need for bells and no Harold to pull them.
Many years later I moved to New York City and out to Brooklyn. I found a room in Carroll Gardens a block from St. Agnus’s cathedral. Once again I heard the bells of a church calling its worshippers. But these bells were tinny and clunky. They were accompanied by organ music. It was always the same organ music: a hymn, like Rock of Ages maybe. Of course it was a tape playing. Across the nation, the Harolds of little girls’ childhoods disappeared. No one took their place. Handicapped people took to wheelchairs and had nothing to prove anymore. They’d been mainstreamed into society. Now they have everyone’s respect as well as the best parking spots.
After the move to Carroll Gardens, I began to hate the sound of church bells. They were usually out of tune because the device playing the cassette wobbled or the speakers couldn’t handle the input the way a two-inch piece of iron forged into a bodacious acoustic shape can.
Today I’m in Frascati a couple of blocks from Cathedral di San Pietro. There is no cassette player here. There’s probably a mechanical ringer, but the bells themselves, the campane, are real. Most bells that I have heard here in Italy are real. I take comfort in that. A piece of my childhood returned to me.
A few years ago I went back and visited my little town in Michigan’s mitt. The candy store was boarded up, the shelves bare. Even though they’d taken down the sign, I could read the word “Harold’s” stenciled in the front section where the sun had bleached the backing material around the letters of his name.
I peeked through the windows and watched the ghost of my little girl self agonizing over the liquorice whips, edible necklaces, wax lips, candy cigarettes, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Sugar Babies, and three types of Wrigley’s. Everything was laid out on the horseshoe shaped counter just like before. Harold was leaning on his crutches in the center space. He didn’t say a word. Too hard for him to talk and the little girl never understood him anyway. But he was patient and the little girl finally made her selection, paid her dime, and ran out of the store away from the deformed man.
I tapped on the window then and caught the ghost of Harold’s eye. I mouthed “I love you.” He could not smile as his face was frozen and so remained expressionless. His eyes, though, dropped a little as he nodded. He’d known all along.