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We were maybe 7 years old when we first heard that elegant accent, something so foreign as to be indefinable to our uncultured, tone-deaf ears. All we knew was that this wasn’t the flat twang heard all around Shelby County, which in those days was dead to any sort sound of elsewhere.
But those of us who hung around Simpsonville soon learned that the words and dialect of a friend’s mother were in fact the King’s English, perfected in the British Isles and brought to America to sing for us on just about any occasion.
Such was our introduction to Evelyn “Eve” Bell, and those of us who were blessed to be around her for most of our lives are mourning today.
Mrs. Bell – her name simply can’t be typed without the formal, social title – passed away last week at the age of 93. Her loss is Shelby County’s loss, a finis terminus for what some would consider our most precious import from England.
We first met Mrs. Bell when her youngest son, David, famously joined Mrs. Lawrence’s second-grade class at Simpsonville Elementary. He was a big personality with a big impact on all of us that has resonated for decades, but with a quiet and sometimes mischievous smile, Mrs. Bell similarly cast into gold our memories of her.
Evelyn and Homer Bell had four children in all, and with Bobby, Rita, Donna and David, four distinct groups of students, friends and neighbors were exposed to her grace and kindness.
The Bells moved into a little frame house on U.S. 60, across from the Baptist church, and that quickly became a pass-through for all sorts of activities that included children from the surrounding streets and nearby farms, each person coming away with an impression that grew only more everlasting.
Mrs. Bell didn’t know much about the sports that dominated the lives of so many of us. She probably could understand little of what we were talking about, sort of like we didn’t grasp immediately the words she was using with us. But she was omnipresent at our group and school events, and she always sent our way a kind word, a nod of approval or that wonderful, captivating smile.
When on Thursday her passing became a post on social media, heartfelt comments popped in from her many adoring fans. Dixie Nutt Taylor grew up next door to the Bells, and she spun insight in simple words of love and adoration.
“The Bells moved next door to us in 1960,” she wrote. “Eve and Homer became fast friends with my mom and dad, and our house was their house. and their house was our house....kids in and out all the time. Mrs. Bell loved all of the neighborhood Simp gang, and we loved her....She was always so elegant, yet she would laugh at our crude jokes and stunts....She was an ‘encourager.’ And although I was always in competition with her son David (and I always finished second), she would cheer me on and make me feel so special....We should all aspire to be as beautiful as Eve Bell....inside and out.”
We all should aspire to be as beautiful as Eve Bell. That was a beauty we came to appreciate even later than those days of our youth.
As we grew older and dispersed around the country in pursuit of education and livelihood, the Bells left that little house and moved to a larger place on Scott Station Road. Mrs. Bell went to work in Shelbyville at the Armstrong Agency, an insurance agency, once among the city’s oldest businesses and now limited to simply a name in the phone book.
The agency operated out of the building that is now Bell House Restaurant, and into the middle of its coterie of personalities came the erect and controlled Mrs. Bell. And she enamored one and all, spreading her unique love in such a way as to become the glue of the group.
Those around her marveled at her, fawned over her and counted their blessings to know her. They laughed when she told of the story of her 80th birthday wish – to go parasailing over the Gulf of Mexico, an awesome feat to a ‘fraidy cat such as I – and smiled when she would write a little note at a holiday or birthday and sign it “We Two Bells.”
In the 1990s, the Armstrong Agency began to dissolve to its current state after owner Neil Hackworth sold it to a chain of agencies, who modernized processes and streamlined. One by one, the women in the office would retire. Some moved away but only geographically.
In 1997, Homer Bell died, and Mrs. Bell left the home on Scott Station for an apartment and then, eventually, an assisted-living facility. But those women of the Armstrong Agency continued to visit her, even as age began to steal the steel from her memory. We watched sadly, but we also saw her grace.
One such visit to see her was by my son, accompanied by his grandmother. They took Mrs. Bell to lunch at, appropriately, Bell House. A year or so later, he returned to where she lived with a singing group to serenade in holiday songs.
Mrs. Bell sat quietly and listened, peaceful and marveling, still smiling, even if that lovely voice no longer so frequently emerged.
If as Frank Capra has taught the ringing of a bell brings wings to an angel, then heaven surely must have heard a cacophony of new promotions as Mrs. Bell rung her way through the Pearly Gates.