Special gifts come from the heart

During this holiday season, maybe you could do things a little differently. Not that time-held approaches aren't enjoyable, but how about adding something unexpected. I have a few ideas.

Let's start at the beginning. It's the season in which present-giving plays a significant role. Every year I make long lists, think and pre-plan, agonize a little and ultimately over-purchase — often giving things family members do not need and may not want.

Not this year. I am providing each of our children and grandchildren (and for that matter all the other people on our list) one thoughtfully considered present, a specific possession we have held dear over the years, something my husband and I already own. I will try to identify gifts our daughters have commented on, maybe even admired. I intend to give our son the sand-filled Zen garden I've had since my freshman year in college — the one he always rakes into intricate, blended circles when he visits.

Even if I'm not ready to part with these items — I will take a deep breath, depart from traditional wrapping and secure the old-new gift with ready-to-be recycled newspapers (the comics section might be a nice touch). I intend to add a hand-written note, offer my present up with an engaging smile and a heartfelt story — and start a new family tradition.

Taking a different approach to the holidays comes in many forms. Here's an illustration. My friend (let's call her Marge) was lonely. She has no family in the area — none whatsoever. New arthritis pains and 82 years of living have worn her down. Last year, with the holidays approaching, her neighbors wanted to do something special.

And they did. They designed a telephone calling system that assured Marge got a call on the hour (throughout all of Thanksgiving Day, as well as Christmas Day) from a different person — sometimes people she did not even know. The calls were simple, caring queries and an occasional "ho ho ho" reliably offered up from early in the morning until late at night.

There's more: They arranged for Marge's son, who lives overseas, to purchase her a telephone amplification device that made taking those calls a pure pleasure for her. And those same caring neighbors asked Marge to identify favorite holiday foods. She named Lefse (Norwegian flatbread) and cranberry stuffing, so they made sure she had some of each — in small-portion, freezer-ready packages she could enjoy throughout the year.

Get the idea? It doesn't take a lot of money to create a few new approaches to this season of celebration. The year we spontaneously gathered people to go caroling with us stays in my mind as one of our better Christmas parties. The year I created a personalized children's book for each grandchild, weaving the story around their favorite toy, was a crowning grandmotherly moment for me. It was one of those keeps-on-giving gifts.

And a final note: On a whim, with thoughts of Marge in my mind, I recently purchased a massaging neck pillow for a 93-year-old, bed-bound woman I dearly love (let's call her Ann). It was the fourth or fifth neck pillow I had given her "… ever trying to find the right positioning for her head. It was an early Christmas present. "Wonnerful" she said repeatedly (her speech compromised a little by missing dentures). It pleased me greatly when Ann's caregiving daughter said her mother continued to absolutely love the colorful, u-shaped pillow.

Ann died this past week, peacefully. I'm told the pillow is being sent, as a gift, to her disabled grandson, who says he doesn't mind at all that the circle-of-life pillow is bright pink.

Onward. Into and through the holidays — this year, a little differently.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 541-776-7371, Ext. 210.

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