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28 Unforgettable Gifts, According To The People Who Got Them

O's friends and family share stories of the greatest gifts they've ever received, in celebration of all that's merry and bright.
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Illustration: Hye Jin Chung

"When I was in my early 20s, I was working to put myself through college, and I was always broke. My sister Penny, in similar financial purgatory, spent the months before Christmas collecting department-store samples of perfumes I could never afford -- Chanel No. 5, Shalimar, Joy. Each little vial was wrapped in colored tissue, and they filled an entire shoe box. She gave me a year's worth of feeling pretty and put together, and I was so moved that she understood how deeply I wanted those things, all without my ever asking."
 -- Paula McLain, author, most recently, of the novel Circling the Sun

Back Spacer
"I once had such an epic fight with one of my best friends that we didn't speak for years. Then we found each other again, and all has been well in the decade since. But the stupidity of that rift always pained me, and I guess it bothered him, too: For Christmas a few years after we made up, he gave me a silver box containing an old typewriter's backspace key --  he'd pried it off his vintage Underwood -- and a note that said, 'If only it worked on everything.'"
 -- Katie Arnold-Ratliff, O articles editor

Some Enchanted Evening
"The night of my 38th birthday dinner was a hot one. I had both my daughters, still babies, on my lap, and our skin kept sticking together. My sister was there with her husband and 3-year-old son, and we were all in that fog you enter when you have small children. I don't remember what we ate or who made it, just that my husband stood up and read a poem he'd written, called 'The Tao of My Wife on Her 38th Birthday,' about us and the girls and finding peace within the chaos of our lives. It was just a poem, just a hot summer night, but it felt like magic. And it still does."
 -- Lily King, author, most recently, of the novel Euphoria


Illustration: Hye Jin Chung

"My grandmother Lillie's stories were filled with scenes and characters from the village in Russia where she'd grown up: the frozen river, the echo of wolf howls, the men who disappeared for months -- or even years -- to chop wood in the forests. Those stories became my own private fairy tales, and without them, I would never have been a writer."
-- Alice Hoffman, author, most recently, of the novel The Marriage of Opposites

Nature and Nurture
"I'd just ended a serious relationship and moved twice, and I was putting in 16-hour days as a mental health and addiction worker. A friend who knew I was really stressed out came to pick me up for dinner, and he brought birdseed so we could stop at a park to feed the ducks. It was exactly what I needed -- to feel the fresh air and be in that peaceful state with the animals."
-- Reader Amanda Elizabeth, Victoria, British Columbia

"I was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was about to be married, and the oncologist suggested I postpone my wedding. My now husband said, 'Well, let's go to city hall tomorrow.' Right answer from Mr. Right!"
-- Jayne Jamison, O senior vice president and publisher

Safe and Sound
"It's a gift to remember my mother's voice as she read to me when I was a child. I loved to rest my head against her side and feel her voice resonating through her ribs. It seemed to me like I was putting my ear to an instrument being played -- a cello, deep and soothing."
-- Kathy Bates, actress starring, most recently, in the TV show American Horror Story: Hotel

Change of Dress
"My parents had very little money, and I didn't expect to get a new outfit for my high school graduation. But one day I found a gift box on my bed, and inside was a beautiful white dotted-swiss dress, along with a slip, nylons and shoes. Somehow my mother had found the money to go to Durfee's, the store where all the rich people shopped. I'm 63 now, and to this day I can't think of it without tearing up. I felt like a million bucks the day I wore that dress."
-- Reader Sally Arquiett, Winthrop, New York

"A close friend and mentor once told me, 'Indecision is a decision. A bad one.' That's become a golden rule in my life."
-- Peter Walsh, organization expert and author, most recently, of Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight


Illustration: Hye Jin Chung

"My father was a jovial man with a quiet presence but a loud voice. After he passed away, I thought, 'Oh, Dad, if I could just hear you talk to me again.' Then when my mom and I were going through his belongings, we found a tattered old book called 'Larry's Musings and Collectibles.' He'd filled it with quotes and observations he'd written down over 25 years: a description of the first time he saw the Grand Canyon, a line from the Bible: 'Your care for others is a measure of your greatness.' It was like having his voice back. Now I'm keeping a journal for my three boys, titled 'What I Know for Sure,' so that even when I'm not with them anymore, they'll always be able to hear me."
 -- Reader Jill Lang, Salt Lake City

The Push
"Some time ago I lived as a Buddhist monk in a forest monastery in Thailand, where I learned from the master Ajahn Chah, a man of great wisdom who was very demanding. We'd walk for miles in freezing weather to collect alms for food, then sit meditating all night. I would be shivering, achy, exhausted. But one morning at 4 o'clock, at the very coldest moment, Chah smiled, winked at me, and said, 'You can do it.' And I knew then that I could."
-- Jack Kornfield, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society and author, most recently, of Meditation for Beginners

Ring It, Sing It
"My dad and I had a tradition of eating at Trader Vic's on my birthday. The year I turned 20, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and became so ill, he had to lean on me to walk. But he insisted on our birthday lunch and gave me a silver bracelet with a single charm engraved with: "A bell is not a bell until you ring it / A song is not a song until you sing it / Love was not placed in your heart to stay / Love is not love until you give it away." He died later that year. Even though I lost him too soon, I am so grateful to have had him for my daddy."
-- Reader Marilee Burgeson, San Marcos, California


Illustration: Hye Jin Chung

"When I turned 4 years old, my parents gave me a teddy bear who somehow ended up with the name Stinky-Brownie. (Okay, it's not a mystery why we called him that: He was brown, and I wouldn't let him out of my clutches long enough for my mother to wash him, so...he stank. But in a good way.) I played with Stinky-Brownie, cried into his matted fur, couldn't fall asleep without him. Not ashamed to say I took him to college. Not ashamed to say I took him with me into two marriages. Not ashamed to say I still bust him out some nights when the sadness threatens to overwhelm."
-- Elizabeth Gilbert, author, most recently, of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

Cash Poor, Love Rich
"I have a dear friend from childhood who had a hard time financially after her marriage broke up. I helped her out, which made me feel good because I love her and wanted to be there for her, but it made her feel bad because she loves me and didn't want to take my money. When she was in the thick of it, she sent me a link from the Neiman Marcus catalog for my birthday. It was an outrageously beautiful necklace -- tiny clusters of jewels shaped into flowers, little gold leaves -- and cost something like $50,000. She wrote, 'If I had all the money in the world, this is what I'd buy you.' I felt completely loved. I didn't want to own it. I just wanted to look at it."
-- Ann Patchett, author, most recently, of the essay collection This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage


Illustration: Hye Jin Chung

"Shortly after my father died, my neighbors gave me a sasanqua camellia bush. The wonderful thing about a sasanqua is that it blooms in the fall, when everything else is beginning to die. The shrub was tiny when it went in the ground; now it brushes against the roof when the wind blows. It's kept the memory of my father blossoming for more than a dozen years."
-- Barbara Brown Taylor, professor of religion and author, most recently, of Learning to Walk in the Dark

"Blessings of simple human kindness have meant more to me than any other gift—my parents comforting me when my heart was broken; a stranger helping me when I got very ill in an airport; people who have told me when I was doing a good job, and those who have shown me mercy when I wasn't."
-- Marianne Williamson, spiritual teacher and author, most recently, of A Year of Miracles

Family Jewels
"Sixteen years ago, my house was robbed. The thieves took every piece of jewelry, including my engagement ring and my mother's wedding band. I'd planned to pass them down to my daughter, and I never got over the loss. Then last year for our 25th anniversary, my husband gave me a ring with my mother-in-law's engagement diamond and three diamonds on either side that form the shape of a heart. I cried like a baby. I look down at that ring every day and see my mom, husband, and mother-in-law. Knowing that I'll give it to my daughter one day makes it even more beautiful."
-- O Magazine Reader Robin Lichtig, Woodland Hills, California


Illustration: Hye Jin Chung

"Earlier this year I was out of work, facing foreclosure on my home and feeling very worthless. To get my mind off things, a friend took me to a music festival, where we stopped at a jewelry booth. I commented on a gorgeous necklace, and the salesman said he'd love to sell it to me. I told him I'd love to buy it, but I was about to be homeless. Half an hour later, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the man from the jewelry booth, who pressed the necklace into my hand and said, 'I hope things get better soon.' And poof! He was gone. I realized then there is still great kindness in the world, and I do matter. After that, everything fell into place: I had the courage to call about a job, and I was hired. I found a program that would pay my mortgage for 18 months and allow me to get back on my feet. One single act of kindness from a stranger changed my life forever."
-- O Magazine Reader Katherine Tripp, Greensboro, North Carolina

"I still have a scrap of paper given to me by Vincent Harding, a speech writer for Martin Luther King Jr. I was a young woman wrestling with questions about my future -- could I be both a spiritual seeker and a social activist? Harding wrote down these words attributed to the educator and theologian Howard Thurman: 'Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.'"
-- Elizabeth Lesser, cofounder of the Omega Institute and author, most recently, of Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow

"My mom told me when I was 23, 'Why be ordinary when you can be extraordinary?' She put me on the path to becoming an advocate for emotional and spiritual healing. It was a big wish at 23. At 40, it's a natural walk."
-- India.Arie, musician, whose latest album is Christmas with Friends

Careful's What She Wished For
"My husband used to drive to work down a road with a dangerous intersection where the speed limit drops to 25. My darling always blew through it at 50. I'm in law enforcement and I'm also a safety nerd, so I asked whether he'd agree to obey the speed limit there, as a birthday present to me. He said, 'What if I just avoid that road altogether?' I told him that was fine, too. It was an excellent gift. He still slows down when he has to go through that intersection, and every time I drive down that road myself, I think of him and feel loved."
-- Kate Braestrup, law enforcement chaplain and author, most recently, of Anchor & Flares: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hope, and Service
Illustration: Hye Jin Chung

Speaking Volume
"I will always treasure my grandma Minnie's unshakable belief and love, and my grandfather Nehemiah's Talmud, which he brought from Russia. He held the book so many times that there's an imprint of his palm on the cover. My grandfather died before I could know him, but when I touch that palm print, it feels like I'm taking his hand."  -- Mark Nepo, poet, teacher, and author, most recently, of Inside the Miracle: Enduring Suffering, Approaching Wholeness

Soft Landing
"Without the support of my childhood friend Hannah, I might never have had the courage to come out to my parents as a gay man. My mother and father are from a traditional Hindu background, where marriages are arranged. When they found a woman in India to be my future wife, Hannah insisted that I finally tell the truth. So I wrote them a letter, and Hannah took me in -- even though she had a one-room apartment with a pullout bed! -- until my family and I could mend our relationship. Hannah saved me, and my ex-fiancée, a lifetime of heartache. I owe her everything."
-- O Magazine Reader Vish Gaikwad, London

"My pottery assistant once made me miniature figures of Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford that I keep on my mantel. If there were a fire, I'd sling my husband, Simon, over one shoulder; our dog, Foxylady, over the other and stuff these in my pockets before I ran out the door."
 -- Jonathan Adler, husband of Simon Doonan, designer, and author, most recently, of 100 Ways to Happy Chic Your Life

"When my husband, Jonny, and I started dating, he made me a pot painted with a heart and my nickname -- Truffles."
-- Simon Doonan, husband of Jonathan Adler, Barneys New York creative ambassador and author, most recently, of The Asylum: True Tales of Madness from a Life in Fashion
Illustration: Hye Jin Chung

Token of Affection
"Many years ago I was living in a New York City hotel that I called the roach palace. My spirit had been crushed by a horrible breakup, and I couldn't eat or sleep. When my neighbor and dear friend, Billy, was moving out, the glass knob on the door to his room came off, and he gave it to me. It was like he was handing me hope that a door might open, and eventually it did -- I survived. When Billy went to L.A. to fulfill his dream of being a comedy writer, I returned the knob to him. We've been passing that doorknob back and forth for 30 years -- to usher in a new job, a new baby, the publication of my novel. It's on my desk now, and when I hand it to Billy, he'll tear up the way I do each time he gives it to me."
-- Cynthia Bond, author of the novel Ruby

The Full Picture
"I was in my 30s when I accidentally found out I was adopted -- a discovery that left me feeling somewhat angry and lost. After six months of searching, I found my birth mother in England and eventually flew over to meet her and my two half sisters. As nice as all that was, there was so much I didn't know. Then one of my sisters sent me a beautiful scrapbook with a picture of four women on the cover. It was filled with photos and information about our Scottish lineage, our grandparents and uncles. Each page had a wonderfully detailed letter describing each person's personality. That priceless object was a dose of healing when I needed it most."
-- O Magazine Reader Lorna Little, West Hartford, Connecticut


Illustration: Hye Jin Chung

"My husband and I have been married for 19 years, and he's never been much of a gift giver -- but last year he really came through. I was feeling drained because I'd been caring for my daughter, who had broken her knee and was immobilized for six months, and he'd been away working in Africa. When my birthday came, he gave me an Emirates around-the-world airplane ticket. I traveled to five places I'd never been -- Bhutan, Australia, Tahiti, Machu Picchu and Santa Fe -- and discovered myself again. I'd always wished my husband would give me the sky and moon. He got the message!"
 -- O Magazine Reader Billur Gungoren, Mougins, France

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