Editor's note: Michele Ashman Bell's friend has given her permission to anonymously share this story and names have been changed. It is an excerpt from "Christmas Spirit: A Collection of Inspiring, True Christmas Stories."
Nine-year-old Angela’s mouth dropped open as she stared at the exquisite Bernstein piano in the music store showroom. The smooth finish of the deep brown wood with reddish tint reflected the lights overhead. It was the most beautiful piano she had ever seen.
“Honey,” her mother said, “did you hear Daddy? The piano is yours. We signed the contract.”
She couldn’t speak. Couldn’t breathe. If every dream she’d ever dreamed, every wish she’d ever wished, and every hope she’d ever dared to hope for had happened all at the same time, she never would have even dared expect something this wonderful to happen.
She burst into tears and fell into her father’s arms. Then she turned to her mother and held out her arms. With a giant squeeze, her mother gathered the weeping child to her chest and held her close. “I take it you like it?” she teased.
Angela continued to cry and hug her parents, feeling as though she’d died and gone to heaven. She couldn’t imagine another day ever being as wonderful as this day was.
Great preparations were being made for stake conference in their little town in South Africa. A visiting general authority was attending this year, then-Elder Thomas S. Monson. Angela accompanied the stake choir, which was preparing to perform Beethoven’s “Hallelujah Chorus” for a final closing number. ...
Before the closing prayer, Elder Monson rose to the pulpit and complimented and thanked the choir and the accompianst.
It was about this same time that the prophet President Spencer W. Kimball announced that the Lord had revealed all worthy male members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could hold the priesthood. For members living in South Africa during the time of apartheid, the news came as a shock but also a joyous and blessed event.
Soon after she turned 20, Angela met a young returned missionary named David Wells. It didn’t take long for either of them to realize they were in love and wanted to get married.
Because there were no Mormon temples in South Africa yet, they got married civilly in South Africa, then chose the temple in St. George, Utah, to get sealed. David had become close to a companion, Elder Michael Wright, from St. George, and Elder Wright had offered to help them with the arrangements.
Going to the United States turned out to be a fortuitous event in their lives. In the airplane on the way home to Africa, David shared his thoughts with Angela.
“I have been doing a lot of thinking and praying, and I feel strongly that we should immigrate to the United States.”
Angela looked at her husband in shock, trying to process the magnitude of what he was suggesting.
“But South Africa is our home. All of our loved ones are there. How can we move so far away and leave it all behind?”
“I understand. It isn’t easy for me either. But while we were in the temple, I felt strongly prompted that we should do this.
"I've pondered and prayed, and I know in my heart it is right.”
Angela had learned early on that David had a special gift. He was very sensitive to the Spirit. He had mentioned to her many times that things in South Africa were changing for the worst. He had served in the military and knew the communist influence was a growing force. Black oppression, friction between tribes, and white supremacy added to the turmoil percolating in the country.
Their first child, a son named William, was born in March the following year. He was a strong, healthy baby, and both Angela and David knew they wanted him to have every chance and every blessing life had to offer. As conditions in South Africa worsened, they knew their choice to leave was the right one, but it certainly wasn’t an easy one.
They both worked many long, hard hours to save their money. They lived on Angela’s salary and saved every penny of David’s income they could. But the greatest sacrifice was yet to come.
“Honey, please don’t cry,” David said when they drove away from Angela's parent’s house, leaving her family and her beloved piano behind. “As soon as we get settled and get enough money, we will have it shipped to the States. I promise.”
She wiped at her tears and clutched one hand to her breaking heart, wishing she dared believe him. But deep down, she knew she would never see that piano again.
With William in her arms and two suitcases each, Angela and David left their beloved homeland and flew halfway around the world to their new home. It was the longest flight of her life, and Angela felt as though she’d cried the entire way.
After two years of schooling, David got his associate’s degree and accepted a job in the postal business, which led them to the Salt Lake City area.
With each child they had, their budget got tighter and tighter; still, Angela was determined to save money so she could bring her piano over from South Africa. But her dream of that ever happening was shattered. Her father lost his job and was out of work for more than a year. Her parents had to sell her piano to pay their bills.
Broken-hearted, Angela understood their predicament and knew that her mother wouldn’t have done it if there was any way to avoid it. Not wanting to ruin everyone’s Christmas, Angela managed to stay strong around her family, but at night, in her prayers, she let her tears fall.
Then David’s health began to fail.
Problem after problem seemed to arise, and soon medical bills began to pile up. Feeling as though she were destined to never have a piano of her own again, she gave up hope and buried her expectations and dreams underneath a pile of disappointment.
Nearly 20 years had passed since they’d left South Africa. Because of the conditions and the political unrest, Angela never doubted that they’d done the right thing in leaving their beloved country. Violence and war were rampant, and she was grateful for the freedom and peace they had in the United States.
Angela worked long, hard hours, feeling the heavy burden of providing for the family. Trying hard to bring the spirit of the season into her home, she found the strength one Saturday to pull out the Christmas decorations. With those up and a few gifts provided by their LDS ward, Angela felt peace in knowing it would be a meaningful Christmas.
With only a few days to go, Angela needed some groceries. Her boss at work had given her a gift certificate for a turkey, so she stopped at the grocery store to buy what she needed for a nice Christmas dinner.
Cautiously, she drove home along the snow-packed road with a prayer of thanks that there wasn’t a lot of traffic at the moment.
She slid on a couple of turns, and the car fishtailed slightly as she drove up the hill, but she made it safely to her house.
When she stepped through the gate toward the front door, she let out a startled yelp. Then she dropped the bags of groceries in her arms and burst into tears.
Sitting there in front of her was a beautiful, spinet piano with a giant red bow on top.
She stood there as snow fell and sobbed.
“Honey?” her husband said through the screen door. “Are you OK? I heard a clatter. What's ..."
His mouth dropped open as he opened the door and stepped onto the porch. “Where? What? Who?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “You didn’t do this?”
“No. Not that I don’t wish I could have,” he said. “It wasn’t me though.”
“Do you think it’s ours?”
He started to laugh. “Well, I’m guessing since it’s on our doorstep it is.”
“Really? You do?”
Fresh tears erupted, and she dared to run her fingers along the smooth wood that glistened with the falling snow.
“I think we’d better get it inside before it gets ruined,” he said.
“Yes,” she said quietly. “I think so too.”
With the help of their oldest two children, who were also unaware of who had given such an amazing gift, they managed to move the piano up the two steps and wheel it into the living room where she’d always kept a spot open, just in case ....
“Who do you think did this?” her son Ben asked.
“I can’t believe someone would just give us a piano,” the oldest daughter, Amanda, remarked.
“This is like a Christmas miracle,” the youngest daughter, Cassie, said. “Play something, Mom.”
“Yeah, Mom,” Ben said, “play a Christmas song.”
Not even needing a song book, Angela sat down on the bench and closed her eyes. It was real. She was really sitting in front of a piano in her own home.
She began to play the sweet melody of the song; then, as the verse started up again, David began to sing in his beautiful tenor voice. On the next verse, the children joined, and on the third verse, Angela sang with them.
How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his heav’n.
No ear may hear his coming;
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him, still
The dear Christ enters in.
Angela knew there was no way she could ever thank whoever had gone to the time, expense, and trouble of giving such a gift.
But knowing someone out there cared enough to do something this wonderful helped her know she would spend the rest of her life treating everyone as though they had been the ones to do it.
Other than her family and the gospel, no other gift could have meant as much as the gift of music.
Here are more Christmas experiences from Mormon authors:
Michele Ashman Bell is the author of the Butterfly Box trilogy and the short story "Christmas in Bliss."