The Best Gifts They Ever Received

Remember When

People recall the most memorable gifts of their lives, from the pranks to the precious.
By Sarah Gilbert Fox

… or maybe not so great. Style asked people to recall the most memorable or unusual gift they’ve given or gotten over the years. They range from the touching to the cringe-inducing.

Barbara Dale, illustrator
For over 40 years my brother, John, has been creating funny, bizarre Christmas stockings for his wife, Nancy. The first year was just a modest upgrade to pantyhose. But since then, there have been stockings made out of a sewn-up girdle, a loaf of Italian bread, a golf bag, a frying pan, a hollowed-out stuffed animal, huge, over-sized panties, a dog bed and 10 Barbie doll heads. Nancy’s stocking is always a great opening act to Christmas.

Scooter Holt, columnist for Baltimore Eats magazine
My aunt had given me a Visa gift card at some point. Later, for an office Christmas party, I regifted the card to the girl who drew my name. I figured she could buy whatever she wanted. I’m thinking I’m golden, completely in the clear. However, when my aunt had purchased the gift card, there was a scam going on at the store. The employees were taking the money, sticking it in their pockets, and giving these gift cards out with nothing on them. A couple days later, this girl from my office calls me up and says that she and her boyfriend went to the movies and the card didn’t work. “I’m sure you can call and get it fixed,” she says. So now I have to get on the phone with my aunt and tell her that I had tried to use the card. And my aunt is like, “Well, what’s the number on the card?” But I don’t have the number, so I have to call back Jenna and ask her, “Hey, what’s the number on the card?” And then my aunt is asking me these other things, like where was I using the card, etc. And it went back and forth for like three days, and finally I had to give it up. It eventually got straightened out, but I had to come clean with both of those folks. Don’t ever regift gift cards.

Daniel Szuba, radiology intern
When I was in elementary school, my uncle used to ask me and my brother what kind of Barbie stuff we wanted for Christmas just to get on our nerves. One Christmas day he came to my house with a humongous, heavy box. My brother and I were so excited. When it came time to open it, we found a huge box of firewood with a Barbie on top, and a note that said, “Sorry Suckers!” We were so dis-appointed, so my uncle told us to open the Barbie. When we did, she had a note in her pants. The note read, “Go look in the front seat of my car.” We ran outside and in the front seat was a PlayStation 2 with about eight new games. It was a pretty funny Christmas, but it didn’t end there. The next year we wanted to give him something “Barbie” back. So we took the original Barbie, pulled her apart, and made ornaments out of all her appendages. For instance, we made the leg into the lamp from the movie “A Christmas Story.” We took her head and put it onto a Santa Claus body, and each arm held a gift or a candy cane. Our family now shares the ornaments.

William Price Fox, writer
Our daughter, who was 8 years old at the time, hadn’t seen her 8-year-old “best cousin” for almost a year. We went to visit them as a surprise for Christmas, but we were late and didn’t arrive until early Christmas morning. So for fun, we wrapped our kid in a huge box, put a bow on it and stuck it under the tree. That was the best present I’ve ever seen unwrapped. The look on those two little faces remains unmatched.

John Shields, owner and chef, Gertrude’s at the BMA
Last year I wanted to impress the in-laws so I decided to buy them Snuggies. So I went on the Snuggies Web site, which, by the way, was specifically designed to confuse the buyer. The more you click on one thing, the more Snuggies you get. So for the family, I’m trying to get four of them, right? By the time I was finished— well, you could get pockets or super deluxe ones that were thicker— I ended up getting two cases of Snuggies, worth about $300! (I wrote the Snuggies people and told them I was writing the attorney general, which I did.) Anyway, I thought I’d give them to the entire extended family, but there was actually a problem, because last Christmas the airport got closed down due to snow. So there we were, stuck with all those Snuggies. This past August, we finally took them to the family reunion, and we brought along Christmas music and handed out Snuggies to everybody. It was the strangest Christmas I’d ever done. Snuggies in August in Chicago. You should have seen all these people— and these aren’t people who you’d expect to be in Snuggies. People will dismiss you, but they love the Snuggies once they get one. You can’t get them off of people.

Kae Davis, Maserati of Baltimore
My husband gave me a GPS instead of jewelry. I was ready to kill him until he explained that since we were in a new city, he wanted me to feel safe to go out and explore on my own, but always be able to make it home safely to him.

Hannah Byron, Assistant Secretary for the Maryland Division of Tourism, Film & the Arts
My husband is not really known for giving the most creative or thoughtful presents, because he’s so busy and he travels all the time. But I have a champion Ginko tree in my yard. It’s the largest Ginko tree in the state of Maryland. In the fall, all the leaves change to yellow in one day, and they all fall off at the same time on another day. They make a blanket of yellow. So my husband had someone paint a picture of it for me. It was such a thoughtful gift.

Dorothy Fuchs, Purple Dot Public Relations
My sister Cindy and I attended Carney Elementary School, and every year there was a holiday bazaar that had a lot of homemade gifts from the different grade-level students (paper weights, hand-painted items, cotton ball wreaths, etc.) as well as trinkets and such. I think my sister Cindy was about 6 or 7 years old when she bought a really tacky, small ceramic apple. She bought it for 50 cents and wrapped it herself, paying for it with money she had earned doing chores at home. Believe it or not, I still have that tacky ceramic apple and I’m now 44 and she’s 42. It’s traveled with me to my apartment after college, it hung in my house when I was married, it hung in my kitchen when I got divorced and I have it now in my new kitchen and I’m trying to figure out where it will go. I smile when I see it, because my sister is one of my best friends, and her small gift to me when we were young said a lot about our friendship and love for each other. She can’t believe I still have it and often asks me to throw it away… never!

Catherinette Singleton, blogger
When I was 12, I used to volunteer in a kindergarten class at my local school. At the end of the year, one of the boys gave me a ring that he had made out of clay. He had painted it silver and he said, “I can’t afford to buy things, but I can make you things. We’re going to get married one day. This is your ring.” It’s been more than 20 years later and I still have that ring.

Cathy Byrd, executive director, Maryland Art Place
In my family, we began to exchange names as we grew into adults, so we didn’t have to try to figure out what to get everyone. One time, as a joke, my sister sent her name to everyone, so she’d be the one to get all the presents. Later, of course, she corrected her joke, but the rest of us decided to play along. On Christmas morning, all the presents under the tree looked like they were for her, even though they were labeled on the bottoms for the real recipients. It was funny.

Cathy Larkin, public relations, WebSavvyPR.com
My brother is a biologist. One Christmas my mom took the electron microscope image that was on the front cover of a journal that had published his first major paper, and turned it into a quilt. Mom said, “He’ll either think I’m crazy, or he’ll love it.” It’s been on the wall of every office he’s had since. It’s an ice-breaker and people can’t believe my mom made it. The electron microscope image is all spiky and geometrical— it’s the hair follicles of a mustard seed. Who knew mustard seeds had hair follicles?

Natalie Goodmuth, student, Towson University
The best gift I’ve ever received was from an old boyfriend of mine a couple Christmases ago. All summer I had bugged him to take me on a picnic. Every week I’d bring it up, but he would either be busy or the weather would be bad or it would skip our minds until the last minute. When Christmas came, I went over to his house on Christmas Day and he gave me my present— a big old-fashioned suitcase with a bow on it. I couldn’t imagine what it was. When I opened it, on the half that lifted up there was a landscape scene of mountains, trees and flowers, taking up the whole inside of the suitcase. The bottom half of the suitcase was lined with fake grass and flowers, a plate, a cup, eating utensils and napkins. He then pulled out a suitcase of his own with the same setup and rolled out a red picnic tablecloth onto the floor. He told me since he wasn’t able to have a picnic with me over the summer, he made a picnic for me in the winter. It was the nicest, most creative and sweetest gift I’ve ever received.

Dara Bunjon, food writer and blogger
I’ll tell you about a gift I got that took my breath away. A friend of mine named Catherine Kleeman makes these beautiful art quilts (cathyquilts.com). She’s become a very renowned quilter, and she made one for me that had all types of food on it. It’s blue and green and has patches with carrots, some with onions, others with zucchini, tomatoes, celery, etc. It was a real labor of love, to address all the food and everything I’ve been involved with. The thought and time that went behind it just took my breath away.

Clarinda Harriss, professor of English, Towson University
My own favorite gifts were a pair of tiny ballet slippers that my mother lovingly painted gold (I had demanded golden ballet slippers, and they only came in black) and a carved riding crop from my father. Both connected with talents I hoped for, which never materialized. But the gift that still makes me sad, was a pair of stockings with embroidered, rhinestone-studded “clocks” up the side that my father gave me to wear to my first formal dance. I loved, loved, loved them, but my mother and grandmother thought they were too old for me and made my father return them to Hutzler’s. I was crushed.

Dulany Noble, owner, Gala Cloths
When I was a child, my parents started a tradition with my brother and me that I have now handed down to my family and close friends. There were always lots of presents at our house, but my brother and I each received only one really big gift, like a bike or riding boots or something like that. The gift card would read “from Mom and Dad.” The rest of our presents— mostly silly and fun or useful— came from the various pets— dogs, cats, horses, ponies, etc.— that we owned. So the warm gloves for riding came from Cream Puff the pony, the Slinky or puzzle came from George the cat, etc. It made for a hilarious morning of opening presents. I have continued that tradition with my family and they, in turn, give me presents from our collection of animals. My horse, Custer, is a wonderful shopper. I think he has an account at Maryland Saddlery, the Sporting Life and Yoicks! It is remarkable how all these animals get the shopping done and get everything wrapped!

Ella Pritsker, owner, Maryland Academy of Couture Arts
One day, years ago when the rotisserie toaster was extremely popular, my 10-year-old son and I were at Best Buy. He’s looking at all the cool things, like games, and I’m over there just staring at the toaster thing. I’m thinking of all the ways it can save me time making dinners. After a while, I really don’t know how long I was looking at it, but it was a long time— my son walks up and asks me, “Do you really want it?” And I said, “I think I do.” “Why don’t you get it then?” he asked. To which I replied, “Delayed gratification, honey, delayed gratification.”

At that point in my life, my boyfriend, Eric (now my husband), and I had broken up. That night, I was eating dinner with my son, and I started talking about the rotisserie toaster, and I said, “I wish I could get it, but I can’t afford it.” At that moment, Eric knocks on the door. He has a parting gift for me— that rotisserie toaster. I said, “How did you know?” And he said, “I don’t know, but at least now you get what you want.” It was meant to be a goodbye gift, but it turned out to be his first Christmas gift to me— the “set it and forget it” rotisserie.

Emily Devan, law student, University of Maryland
When I was living in Japan in a small town outside Osaka, I met a Japanese woman interested in arts and crafts. For some reason she had Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy dolls and an obsession of wooden toys. There is an annual festival in Japan called the Doll Festival, where Japanese families with daughters set up stands in the homes with dolls on them. The dolls are mostly handed down through generations and dressed in emperor and empress clothing. This woman dressed a Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy in royal clothing and made a stand out of wood and gave it to me.

Amanda Austin, interior designer
I say that every day we can move a mountain, and we often forget the impact we have on the world. One morning I was walking in my neighborhood and said hello to three boys I passed. Two said hello back; the other swore and called me a name. I said, “Excuse me? What did you say?” He said it again and ran across the street. So I said, “I know you’re walking to school down the street and we’re going to talk. The words you just spoke can never be spoken in the presence of, let alone to, a lady. Every word you speak carries a great weight and they can change the world. And you know, you’re more than that person you were a moment ago.” And he said, “I’m sorry, I was just trying to have fun.” I told him it was OK, but that I lived right there on the corner, and we’re going to see each other every day on his way to school, so now we can say hello. A week later, they all knocked on my door and we called each other by name. Gandhi once said be the change you want to be. To me, taking the time to make the difference is the perfect Christmas gift to give. The greatest gift we can give doesn’t involve money, it involves time.

Laurie Przybylski, assistant manager at Greetings and readings
You know how Santa goes around the neighborhood in a firetruck? Well, on Christmas Eve one year, that firetruck pulled up into our driveway and Santa got out. He said, “Is Wendy here?” Wendy is my sister, and somehow her fiance managed to talk Santa into bringing her an engagement ring.

Written for Baltimore Style magazine, November 2009

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