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A Celebration of a Life

Author: Jane Swanson

A sudden peal of celebratory bells rings out loud and clear from the tower of St Peter’s church. It’s an unexpected sound, something I haven’t heard in a long time. Joyful, majestic cascading arcs of music spill out high above the town. I wait to see if a wedding party appears at the open door, but there’s no one around, and I wonder if another event like an anniversary or an ordination is being celebrated inside the church. A gentle spasm of longing eases across my shoulders. The last time I heard a bell ringing was in the radiotherapy department of a hospital, a large brass bell like a ships-bell with a blue rope that rang out to salute the end of a long course of treatment. The bell had a deep, metallic clang, and moments afterwards when it was silent there was a hush in the waiting room, a silence that complemented the bell as a poignant marker of the event. I am struck by how the sound of that bell lies deeply rooted in my memory. When I think about it, I realise that bells have provided a soundtrack to many significant moments in my life.

All over the world the sound of ringing bells bring people together. Bells call out for our celebrations and toll with compassion for our grief and sadness. With the sound of celebration vibrating through the air I sit down on a bench opposite the church door, straighten my shoulders and take the time to quietly celebrate all the precious moments in my life that have been marked by the sound of ringing bells.. .

The dull, cold clank of the teacher ringing the hand bell in the school yard is my earliest memory of hearing a bell. They were happy, carefree days with scuffed knees, whirling skipping ropes and endless games of marbles.

There was the sprightly chime of the old-fashioned shop bell on a rusted steel spring above the door of my grandmother’s dress shop, as sprightly and cheery as the way she sprang up from her chair behind the counter to greet her customers.

The first album I bought in 1973 was Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield, the many changes of mood in this instrumental piece chimed perfectly with the complex emotions I experienced as a teenager. The music begins with a soft tempo, an eerie sound, and builds as more percussion instruments acoustically weave their way into the composition. The steely, resonant sound of the tubular bells being struck with a hammer sounded like the hand bells we played in the music department at school.

The tintinnabulation of bells on my wedding day singing out from the top of the church spire. Bells pulled by bell ringers who heaved on ropes attached to wooden wheels, so that the bells swung open-mouthed through full circles and rang out in jubilant rounds.

The jingle of wooden handheld sleigh bells at the many shows at my children’s school; the clink-clink of the tiny brass bells sewn onto their red Santa hats on Christmas morning, and the clattering-clap of shiny cowbells they bought as holiday souvenirs.

The brittle sound of the ancient church bell ringing in the cool air during a stay at Lluc Monastery in the Serra de Tramuntana mountains in the north west of Mallorca; the deep, sonorous hum of a vibrating Tibetan singing bowl, and the chink-chink of Tingsha bells at the beginning and end of a yoga class. Spiritual bells that over the years have settled my mind, helped me reflect on life, to find peace and an ease of being.

The crystalline tinkling sound of the cut glass bell my mother kept on her bedside table and would ring when my parents needed help in the night.

The slow, repeated clangour of a solitary tenor bell at my parents’ funerals when we gave thanks and commemorated their lives.

The bells of St Peters fall silent, a resonant hum lingers in the air, I look up at the tower and can’t help but smile.