Gifts That Uplift
The most meaningful presents may not come wrapped in shiny paper or frilly ribbons. They’re the ones that lighten your spirit, ignite your imagination, and ease your troubled mind. Here, in the season of generosity, tales from O’s friends and family about the greatest gifts of all.
1. I was living in California when I found out my grandmother had congestive heart failure and wasn’t expected to pull through. She was one of my best friends—I’d lived with her when my dad was overseas in the army. I always felt like her arms were around me, that I could say anything to her.
I made it to Illinois in time to be there the day she died. When I went to her home to go through her belongings, I found a glass canning jar of pickled beets in the fridge with my name written on the label. I hadn’t been back there for some time, but I think she somehow knew I’d be with her at the end of her life. I sat down, crying, and ate the whole jar.
—Judy Bissey, O reader, San Rafael, California
2. After my first year with my boyfriend, I expected a decent birthday gift—maybe a nice dinner or a cute jacket from my favorite store. So when he handed me what felt like a wrapped piece of paper, my heart sank. With fake enthusiasm cued up, I unwrapped a two-pocket folder. Inside were official documents for a star he’d purchased for me—and named Martine. That was the name given to my mother in a Quebec orphanage before she was adopted in the U.S. and renamed Judy. It’s also my middle name. My mother died when I was 16, and I’d spent a few embarrassing nights tearfully telling my boyfriend stories about her. Even though a piece of paper can’t bring her back, the night sky has felt different ever since—like she’s up there sparkling in all her eternal glory.
—Ashley Sepanski, O contributing web produce
3. When I was about 13, my mom thought I was spending too much time in the house reading, so she signed up my sister and me for Hawaiian dance lessons. Though we lived in Michigan, we took to them immediately; in fact, over the next few years we expanded our repertoire to include Maori, Samoan, and Tahitian dance, too. I think we loved the costumes almost as much as the dancing itself; the Tahitian costumes in particular were fantastic. They were expensive, though, and we knew our parents—a barber and an office manager—would never be able to afford them. But about two years into our lessons, my sister and I ran into the living room on Christmas morning, and there they were under the tree: ankle-length, wheat-colored straw skirts, mine with tiny shells and fringe tassels stitched to the waistband, and tall, elaborately embroidered headdresses. Our parents, knowing we’d flip, were waiting with their camera poised, and caught us with our eyes—and mouths!—wide open.
—Balinda DeSantis, O reader, Lake Orion, Michigan
4. Growing up, I adored Christmas: the most glittery, most magical time of the year. But my stepfather made the holidays as erratic as his moods. One year he bought me an armful of stuffed animals; the next year we didn’t have a tree or presents at all. I’m married now, and my husband and his family are Christmas crazy—my mother-in-law still has ornaments he made in second grade. For my first Christmas with them, she bought me a set of traditional German bride ornaments. There’s a sparkly teapot that represents hospitality, a shiny red heart for love, and my favorite, a blue bird you clip onto a tree branch—it symbolizes joy. Last year my husband accidentally dropped the bird, and it shattered. I never realized how much it meant to me until it broke. I told him the set symbolized the normalcy and the family I craved as a kid and now finally had. A few weeks later, I unwrapped a new bird that looked like my old one. Every year it brings me unspeakable joy to place each ornament in its special spot on the tree.
—Jennifer Chen, writer and editor
5. This winter my husband surprised me by cleaning all six of the bird feeders in our backyard. It’s a task I hate, especially when they get gunky from the rain. I came home, and there they were—shiny, clean, and dry—waiting for me to fill them with seed, my favorite part.
—Janet Yano, O Northwest advertising director
6. Back in 2004, I was at the University of Vermont, thousands of miles from my family in Johannesburg, and severely depressed. I was grieving my mom’s death, but I was so determined to succeed in school that none of my friends even knew I was struggling. One day after work, my roommate relayed a phone message. When I tearfully called the number, my paternal aunt answered. She sensed that what I needed was home. Though she’s an educator and didn’t earn heaps of money, she found a way to buy me a plane ticket back to Johannesburg for winter break.
She gave me that gift without asking what was wrong or why I was crying, and for three weeks I had the pleasure of eating home-cooked meals, playing with my baby cousins, and traveling in my home country to refuel my spirit and replenish my heart. There are still many days when I think back and realize that with one act of kindness, my aunt allowed me to experience joy again.
—“Tepsii” Thendo Tshikororo, O reader, Pretoria, South Africa
7. There was a brief period when my siblings and I came home from elementary school to find small presents on our beds—our mother called them happies. One time there was a sticker book and three or four sheets of stickers, the good kind, that were sparkly or puffy or scratch-and-sniff. My favorites were the shiniest, most delicious things: ice cream cones, squishy and pink; sundaes topped with whipped cream and a single cherry. We didn’t know what had sparked the happies, but now that I’m older, I realize they must have arrived around the time when money became a concern. Those small gifts were proof that things were okay.
—Mary Miller, author of, most recently, Last Days Of California
8. The summer I turned 16, my father gave me his refurbished ’69 Chevy Malibu convertible. Cherry red, chrome accents, V8 engine—a gift wasted on me at that age. What did I know about classic cars? The important thing was that Hannah and I could drive around Tucson with the top down.
Hannah was my best friend, a year younger but much taller, almost 5’10”. “Hannah’s a knockout,” my mother always said. And sure enough, that summer she signed with a modeling agency. She was already doing catalog work and some runway.
A month after my birthday, Hannah and I went to the movies. On the way home we stopped at the McDonald’s drive-through, putting the fries on the seat between us to share. “Let’s ride around awhile,” I said. It was a clear night, oven-warm, full moon slung low over the desert. Taking a curve too fast, I hit a patch of dirt and fishtailed. What happened next is hazy: I plowed through a neighbor’s landscape wall and drove into a full-grown palm. The front wheels came to rest halfway up the tree trunk.
French fries on the floor, the dash, and my lap. An impossible amount of blood on Hannah’s face, flaps of skin hanging into her eyes. They took us in separate ambulances. In the ER, my parents spoke quietly: Best plastic surgeon in the city. End of her modeling career. We’d been wearing lap belts, but the car didn’t have shoulder harnesses. I’d cracked my cheekbone on the steering wheel; Hannah’s forehead had split wide open on the dash. What would I say to her?
When her mother, Sharon, came into my hospital room, I started to cry, bracing myself for her anger. I deserve it, I thought. She sat beside me and took my hand. “I rear-ended my best friend when I was your age,” she said. “I totaled her car and mine.” “I’m so sorry” was all I could get out. “You’re both alive,” she said. “The rest is window dressing.” I started to protest and Sharon stopped me. “I forgive you. Hannah will, too.”
Hannah’s stitches looked like an intricate road map tattooed on her forehead. She never modeled again. But Sharon’s forgiveness allowed Hannah and me to get back in the car together that summer, to stay friends throughout high school and college, to be in each other’s weddings, and to watch my four teenagers fawn over her three younger children. I think of her gift of forgiveness every time I’m tempted to resent someone for a perceived wrong. And whenever I see Hannah. The scars are so faded, no one else would notice, but in the sunlight I can still see the faint shimmer just below her hairline—for me, after all these years, an imprint of grace.
—Jamie Quatro, author of, most recently, I Want To Show You More
9. Shortly after getting married, my artist husband and I were still commuting long-distance to see each other, so he made me a gift to show how much he missed me. He sculpted, out of 14kt gold, a tiny deer with wings. The whole thing was only about an inch long, and he mounted it on a piece of turquoise he cut to look like a little cliff. My Cherokee name is Winged Deer, but out of shame or fear, no one in my family had ever honored it. My husband loved this rich part of my history and made that symbol just for me.
—Wewer Keohane, PhD, O reader, Carbondale, Colorado
10. On my 19th birthday, my best friend and roommate, Sarah, gave me a copy of The Joy of Cooking. I’d moved away from home at age 16 and had been living with Sarah for a couple of years; she’d saved up tips from her restaurant job to pay for the book. It inspired the start of my love of cooking and was a true mark of independence. I’m still moved each time I read the inscription on the inside cover: “You’re like a sister to me. XO, Sarah.”
—Gillian MacLeod, O deputy art director
11. On my 16th birthday, which was also my best friend Russell’s 16th birthday, my dad asked me to help with some filing at his building supply shop. I pouted and sulked the whole way there. But as I walked up to the door, I saw dozens of people through the glass. My parents and Russell’s had teamed up to surprise us: our moms decorating the showroom to look like a diner, complete with a jukebox; our dads driving to Kennesaw, Georgia, and back—two hours round trip!—to pick up hot dogs, chili, onion rings, and little paper hats from the Varsity, a regionally famous drive-in restaurant. They even took coolers so they could bring back my favorite thing on the menu, the frosted orange. (Imagine the love child of a Creamsicle and an Icee.) Those Varsity dogs—I must have eaten three that day—were a sign that I was grown-up, with preferences and eccentricities that made me special, and very, very loved. Who’d spend two hours in the car just for a chili dog? My mom and dad would, for me.
—Elyse Moody, O senior associate editor
12. My mother gave me a copy of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women when I was 9 or 10. I can still remember the shock I felt when I realized that Beth, the sweetest of the four March sisters, the shy, kind one whom everyone adores, was actually going to die. She says she knows her life is leaving her like a tide going out. Which it does.
My own father had died when I was 5. More than once, outside my small town where everyone knew me, when I told kids about him, they didn’t believe me. I must have been making it up, a dad killed by a heart attack; it didn’t fit with what they knew about how the world worked. In the stories they’d seen on TV or read in their books, good characters met reliably good fates. Not in this one. I had a great sense of recognition in Little Women—it was set in a fictional world, but it had a familiar kind of loss. I began to see books as the realm of the unsayable.
I went on to read every Louisa May Alcott novel I could find. Didn’t I sometimes find the prose a little “preachy”? people asked. Not a bit. I think I liked the heroism expected of children—how seriously we were taken, how noble we could be. There I was, a child of the postwar suburbs, longing for Victorian earnestness. I knew that Jo, the tomboy sister who wasn’t even my favorite, was based on Alcott herself—proof that girls who hoped to write books sometimes really did. And Alcott became my model of the writer I began to want to be.
—Joan Silber, author of, most recently, Fools
13. I got married in October 2001, the month after 9/11, and almost immediately, my husband and I set off on an 11-month trip with the round-the-world plane tickets our families had given us as wedding gifts. The anxiety I felt when the wheels left the earth on that first flight was so intense, I wept and thought I might pass out. When we returned to the States, I told my pilot father how I was feeling, and he bought me flying lessons.
Understanding the mechanics of flight gave me a new confidence. And while being able to operate a Cessna 172 in no way qualifies me to take control of a passenger jet, I still feel safer knowing how pilots can work around engine failures or turbulence and keep us safe in the air.
Day to day, we live in a maze of roads, buildings, and street signs—moving forward, rarely looking up. Being overhead lets you see how the places you inhabit connect to the greater whole. And that’s meant taking a big-picture view of how things fit together, how small daily actions add up to a life. It’s changed not just the way I look at the cities I love, but the way I live.
—Jen Turrell, O reader, Flagstaff, Arizona
14. From way back when I was little, my mom had always wrapped my “best” Christmas gift with one particular paper she saved and reused; it was pink, white, and silver, with an illustration of a blonde ballerina in pointe shoes, surrounded by glitter. One year the best gift was an Easy-Bake Oven; another year, a long plaid winter coat I’d been hoping for. And in 1986, when I’d just gone back to teaching full-time after the birth of my son—and was feeling totally overwhelmed—it was a poem my mom wrote. It said my freezer was now full of dinners she’d made: lasagna, meatloaf, chicken Tetrazzini. Each package was labeled with directions and ready to heat. (For his part, my dad, a former military man, would pick up my ironing each week and deliver the crisp pressed clothes back to my closet.) My mom passed away in 2011, but I still have the paper, covered with layers of yellowed tape. Maybe that was actually the best gift of all.
—Tamira Jensen, O reader, Omaha, Nebraska
15. My first-grade teacher, Mr. Applebaum, noticed that I liked to draw more than the typical 7-year-old, so one day he gave me a blue three-ring binder full of blank loose-leaf paper. It was the first sketchbook I ever owned. More than 30 years later, I’ve filled hundreds of them. Sure, it was just a bunch of paper, but what he really gave me was the idea that my passion for drawing was worth pursuing. I’m a cartoonist today, and I might not have been without that encouragement. Thanks, Mr. Applebaum, wherever you are.
—Dan Meth, illustrator
16. The day I drove to my grandma’s apartment to tell her I was gay was one of the most terrifying of my life. It was early November, and I was planning to spend Thanksgiving with my girlfriend’s family—which is why I found myself speeding up I-95 to Stamford, Connecticut, to explain to Grandma Susan why she wouldn’t be seeing me in a few weeks. Coming out is often a prickly process. But revealing my most tender desires to my grandma—a serious woman who was more likely to take her grandkids to a frightening German opera than invite one of them to cuddle up in her lap—felt especially confounding. She wasn’t one to discuss feelings, hers or anyone else’s. And showing up at her assisted-living facility to blubber on about my out-and-proud Sapphic self definitely fell under the category of feelings.
Fifteen minutes before the end of our visit, I finally mustered the courage to tell her, blurting out a few words before the blubbering started. I apologized for becoming emotional, for muddying our moment. That’s when she reached out to pat my leg. “Zoe,” she said. “I always knew you were special. I just didn’t want you to be alone.” Seven weeks later, at Christmas, she met my girlfriend and gave her a warm, welcoming hug. Less than three weeks after that, my grandma passed away in her sleep. But having that day with her was a gift I’ll treasure always—the day she learned who I was and whom I loved, and, in her own way, let me know she loved me, too.
—Zoe Donaldson, O associate editor