Gifts From the Heart

Three days to go. We’re in the home stretch of the holiday shopping season, and if you’re feeling more stress than Christmas spirit you aren’t alone.

It starts earlier every year. Stores decorate in October; Black Friday has all but eclipsed Thanksgiving. It’s recreation for shopaholics, good for stores, good for the economy.

But as you rush to get the last gifts under the tree, consider this: Do you remember the gifts you bought last year? Do you remember the gifts you received last year?

I don’t. Except for a new sweater found in a drawer after being forgotten for a year, I couldn’t tell you a single thing I got last Christmas. Or bought for others. The gifts buried in the knee-deep sea of wrapping paper at our house undoubtedly included clothing, gift certificates and maybe a CD or two, but I honestly don’t remember.

There have been exactly two gifts that I remember and will never forget. One was a guitar. I was a teenager and had been saving for it for over a year. It seemed odd that it had taken over a year to arrive since I’d ordered it, but on Christmas morning the mystery was solved.

It had actually arrived months earlier, but my parents had sworn the dealer to secrecy. They’d made up the $150  difference between what I’d saved and the purchase price – a lot of money for them in those days – and on Christmas morning it was waiting. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen and the best gift I’d ever received, or would receive.

The other gift remembered for life was one my wife and I gave to her entire family. Our principal possessions then included one small child and an old, North End house that devoured money faster than a bloodhound can down a plate of bacon. We were, in other words, pretty close to being broke.

Financially, Christmas couldn’t have come at a worse time. We were in the process of replacing the plumbing, the wiring, the furnace and other antiquities. To say that we didn’t have a lot of money for gifts would have been an understatement. We might have had $100 total to spend on what was then a fairly large family – parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins … Short of gift certificates to McDonald’s, it was obvious we couldn’t buy something for everybody.

So … we decided to make our gifts. Specifically, Christmas memory boxes. I did a fair amount of woodworking in those days, so we went to a lumber store and bought boards to make the sides, laminate for the backs and cedar strips to make compartments inside the boxes. I routed grooves near the front edges to hold panes of glass, which we had cut to size at a glass shop.

That sounds simple, and for a master woodworker it would have been. My skills fell somewhat short of the master level, however, and by the time we’d gotten the idea time had grown short. The number of boxes needed meant that I was working in my father-in-law’s basement workshop well into Christmas Eve.

My wife was equally busy making the contents of the compartments. Each compartment represented a branch of the family, each item in the compartments a person. My wife’s mother, then a secretary with the Washington State Patrol, was represented by a law enforcement insignia, her husband the deep-sea fishing buff by a fishing pole. Her cousin, then in her last year of college, by a cap and gown. Her uncle, who worked for Boeing, by an airplane. Her grandmother by miniature knitting needles … and so on.

Our compartment contained a miniature newspaper for yours truly, a  Joker playing card for my wife the family wit, a doll for our toddler daughter – and a baby bottle.

When the boxes were opened, the baby bottle had everyone stumped.  Until my wife’s aunt guessed the obvious – it was a way of announcing that we were expecting another child.

You could say it was corny, and in a way it was. But all of the relatives who got the memory boxes still reminisce about them and have them displayed in their homes some 30 years later.

Why did those gifts, which cost a few dollars each, make such an impression? Because there was something of us – and of the whole family – in them. We didn’t need to spend spend a lot of money or go on a shopping spree. Our gifts were simple, but they came from the heart. It seemed to be enough.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in the Idaho Statesman and is posted on the following Mondays. Contact him at


3 thoughts on “Gifts From the Heart

  1. So very true. This year especially, given the passing of four family members, and the current watch of another’s failing too soon, I know the importance of those we love far trumps anything. The bright lights of three treasured friends, all stellar humans who have graced my life, have gone out in the past three years. And now there is a huge hole in my heart as my hero, my father, is gone from sight. My life is richly bless by treasured life-long friends and fantastic family. I am extremely fortunate and more than ever know what truly matters.


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