Gifts come in all sizes: big and small, expensive and dirt cheap. They can be objects, or experiences. Given for a specific occasion, or just because. But the best gifts are totally subjective. Maybe you delighted a friend. Or got something you desperately needed. Or were given something that startled you, in the very best way, by making you feel truly known. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The greatest gift is a portion of thyself.” Is that true for you? When it comes to gifts, there are as many answers and interpretations as there are gift-givers and recipients.
This post was inspired by one of our very favorite columnists, Heidi Stevens of the Chicago Tribune. (You can read her lovely compilation here.) Like Heidi, we were most interested in the things that stayed with you. The gifts that lodged themselves in your memory, serving as a tangible trigger to transport you back to another time and place. We received dozens of lovely and surprising submissions, many of which are featured below.
Thanks for sharing your stories with us, and if you haven’t yet, please comment below. Happy holidays. — Cloe and Frannie
After I struggled for years with infertility, a close friend gave me and my husband the greatest gift of our lives: our son. A mother of two herself, she selflessly offered to be our egg donor, enduring weeks of daily injections and traveling 300 miles to work with my reproductive endocrinologist for my IVF cycle here. I’ll never forget her offer to us: “Everyone should be able to have a family. I’ve had mine. I want to help you have yours.” We are reminded of — and grateful for — her kindness and love every day as we watch our 6-year-old son grow and thrive. — Keiko Zoll
The gift was a set of chintzy hors d’oeuvres forks, about the length of my index finger, with plastic handles brightly painted in some non-specifically “ethnic” design. They were neither durable nor memorable. But the gift-giver, well, he’s another story. My father was in the hospital, dying from heart failure, and to be with him, I’d been away from home for a couple of weeks. One morning he called my mother to his bedside and whispered a reminder in her ear. A few hours later, she returned from the hospital gift shop with a present for my imminent wedding anniversary. Why Sarasota General Hospital sold home entertaining products is beyond me, but the gift itself – prompted by my father on his death bed — made perfect sense. He was a sweet and thoughtful man who fervently believed in celebrating the endurance of love. And though his body gave out two days later, his heart lives on in his gifts, both tangible and not. Lucky, lucky me. – Julie Wittes Schlack
One of the first patients I ever cared for during my internship was in the ICU for pneumonia that was complicated by severe lung disease from decades of cigarette smoking. She eventually got better and later gave me a needlepoint of my name and caduceus inside a clear plastic ashtray. This piece has taken different meanings for me over the years — a cigarette smoker gifts a young doctor an ashtray — and I’ve had it on my desk for 30 years. — Jay Baruch
A flower garden. I was sad as my brother and his family moved away. My friend knew this and surprised me by planting a flower garden in my yard when I was out of town. It was incredible to find this beautiful garden waiting for me when I got home. — Amy Simon
Every year my instrumental music students would buy me presents which always upset me, since not everyone could afford to. With three weeks left until our concert, I told the group I didn’t want anyone spending money on a gift for me. The group surprised me with the most wonderful handmade holiday card — but what was inside meant even more. It was a certificate that read, “This is a promise from us all that we will practice every night until our concert.” It was signed by every student. And they followed through. Our winter concert was the best one ever. The students felt so proud of themselves too. It was a gift that pleased them, pleased me and pleased a whole audience. — Judy Gutlerner
I took my husband out to dinner for his birthday. During dinner, I went to the restroom to check… and brought the positive pregnancy test out to show him. — Diana Carroll
In the late '60s my mother-in-law, Bernice, gave me a Navajo necklace featuring starbursts of turquoise and silver. The story she told about it was this: a friend of hers had received it from her husband, who got it as payment for a painting he made of a Navajo man in the '40s. The couple was moving from Berkeley to Cambridge, and Bernice's friend needed a warm coat. Bernice traded her fur coat for the necklace, and wore it often. I still have it, and still love it. A beautiful object never paid for with money, but traded for value given. — Joey Brode
My granddaughter. There are just no words to describe my affection for her. I love my children. However, the love that I feel for her leaves me speechless. — Peggy
When my sons were little I gave them picture books written by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith: “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales,” “Math Curse,” and “Squids Will Be Squids.” This gloriously berserk collection featured wit and ideas that stretched their understanding of the world while cracking them up and providing a lifetime supply of catchphrases. Reading these on repeat helped spark my kids’ appreciation for a convoluted sense of humor that they return to me as a gift every day. — Sharon Brody
After my Nana died, my sister and I collected all of the family recipes from her cookbooks and reached out to aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. We scanned in typed and hand-written recipes, and turned them into a cookbook with family photos. My mom was very close to her mom and cooking was one main thing they had in common. My mom still has the book, and it's a gift I don't think we'll ever top. — no name
My husband gave me a two-person inflatable boat. It even had oars! I loved that boat! Floating (a little further out than my kids could reach) was deeply relaxing; I felt a sense of joy there. My kids played with it and we had a blast, but those minutes alone... — Maureen Reid-Cunningham
A membership to the National Organization for Women when I was 18. The uncle who gave it to me was saying that he saw, valued and wanted to support/amplify my voice and what mattered to me, and that has stayed with me in a powerful way. — Abby Shuman
My brother, who suffers from depression, had been (emotionally) detached from the family for a few years. Last year, he finally started seeking help and has improved greatly. For Christmas, he gave me and my family each a small, yet very personal gift. Though the gifts themselves weren't worth much monetarily, they symbolized a new chapter in his life and a real turnaround in his "return" to the family. His improved health is the best gift that any of us could have asked for. – Lauren
I'm a writer, and a reader, and I love nothing more than a note from my loved ones. Here's the best note my husband ever wrote to me, which was accompanied by flowers: "Dear Meghan, Forged in the heat of 10,000 suns and quenched in the blood of your foes, your motherhood shines like a beacon above all others of its kind. You are the best! Love, Rob." — Meghan Kelly
Converting old family 8mm films for my Dad's 75th birthday and then doing the same for my in-laws 8mm films for Christmas a decade later. It was like opening a time capsule 50 to 60 years in the making. The fashion, cars, landscape, deceased relatives and friends made you cry/laugh at this window in time. — Frank M.
The day after the 2016 election, when I was horrified, inconsolable and unable to stop crying, my husband gave me the “Hamilton” tickets he was planning to give me for Christmas. I was briefly ecstatic! After a short while, I remembered what had happened and fell into despair again. But I was so thankful that he tried! – no name
Santa brought my 3-year-old daughter a bag of Barbeque potato chips. Our kids can request one gift from Santa and this was her choice. She was thrilled. — Sandra Dickie
Sam and I were living together for the first time, in an apartment on East 13th Street in New York City. We were young; maybe 25. At the time, I was enamored by a textile store a few blocks away that sold wares made by artisans from around the world. For Christmas that year, he gave me a lime-green bamboo fruit bowl. I loved it. It made our tiny apartment feel more like a home. We’ve moved at least seven times since East 13th and now we live in the suburbs in a house with three kids and a dog. But we still have that bamboo bowl. There are apples in it right now. – Cloe Axelson
My childhood memories of Christmas are not nostalgic with happiness and good feelings. I grew up the oldest of eight children in a house with a psychologically and sometimes physically abusive alcoholic father and a mother who also had a drinking problem. The holidays were an especially difficult time because my father would be home from work all day, and he would start drinking early in the morning and continue all day. We never knew what happened to his paycheck, but there was never enough money for necessities — let alone Christmas presents for eight children. We had no TV, no car, no washing machine, not enough beds or blankets, little broken down furniture, few clothes, no dental care, sometimes no heat or hot water and sometimes no food. Even before I reached my teens, I understood and accepted that there would be no presents for me. I was about 14 when I found a tiny wrapped gift for me under the tree on Christmas morning. I opened it and inside was an eraser from my 6-year-old sibling. Every time I think of that gift, it moves me to tears. I think of all the love and caring that came out of that small child’s heart, in spite of living through a miserable home life. It was the best Christmas present I ever got. – no name
My son Jon gave me a potato peeler with a red, plastic handle. He was 7 at the time. He had no help picking out this gift, because his dad had moved out. I guess he thought about what was important to me, as he saw me cooking dinner for him and his sister every day. Now 47, Jon is still that very thoughtful person, with three children of his own, and I still have and use my very special potato peeler with the red plastic handle. – no name
When I was still single in my late 30s, I went to see a therapist then in her 80s in hopes we could figure out why. Soon after, I decided to give up trying to solve the mystery and become a single mother. When my baby daughter was born, the therapist gave me a beautiful pink blanket she had crocheted herself. My own mother was long dead, so I cherished it as a maternal mark of approval and support for a hard but right choice. — Carey Goldberg