19 Heartwarming Stories of Priceless Gifts That Cost Next to Nothing
1. U2 is my favorite band, and I'm always talking about them on my podcast. One day I mentioned the charities Bono's involved in, like Poverty Is Sexist, an amazing program. Cut to a week later: My manager texts me a photo of a beautiful bouquet of white flowers that had just arrived at her office with a note that said, "Heard you are giving Poverty Is Sexist some airtime and helping us make serious stuff more fun. Thank you." And it's signed "Bono." I just sat on the train crying.
— Phoebe Robinson, author of You Can't Touch My Hair and cohost of the podcast 2 Dope Queens
2. My mother was pregnant with me when my father was deployed to Germany in World War II, and he was killed when I was just 2 months old. Four years ago, I got a call from a man who said, "You don't know me, but please don't hang up." His father and mine had been best friends, and he'd found letters my father had written his dad during the war. He asked if I wanted copies (the originals had been put in a historical archive). When they arrived, I was dumbstruck. I got to see my father's handwriting, enjoy the way he phrased his sentences, and learn what he was thinking during that awful time.
I'm the pastor of a little country church, so I often listen to the stories people tell me, and I see how they change and blossom, how they move from despair to joy, from fear to courage. I witness how they fight their battles, and even when it seems they've lost, their story never ends. Dad's story lives on through this man and his son, and it will continue through my sons, who will know their grandfather through those letters. They gave me a piece of the man who gave me life, and who gave his own for his country.
— Helen Badman, O reader
3. I left my home in Toronto to move to Los Angeles, where I knew no one, to pursue my dream of being an actress. My older brother was one of the only people who believed in me. When I got to California, I opened the trunk of my car and found a "vision box" he'd created for me, with almost 100 laminated photos of all my heroes and books that inspired me, plus an image he'd made of my name on a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. There were even pictures of puppies because I long to have a dog one day! When I feel like giving up, that box reminds me of all the great people and things awaiting me on my journey.
— Natasha Khawja, O reader
Illustration: Todd St. John
4. When we were courting, my husband bought me a pair of hiking boots: plain brown leather with red laces, the platonic ideal of hiking boots, reminiscent of the wafflestompers of my '70s childhood. It's been two decades, and I've marched all over the world in those boots. They're worn and cracked, showing their years the way an aging face does. Every once in a while my husband rubs them down with oil and replaces the laces, then puts them back on the shoe rack without saying a word. The next day I find them, newly loved.
— Claire Dederer, author of, most recently, Love and Trouble
5. All the best gifts I've ever received have been things my children made. Poems, usually, or drawings, though last Mother's Day my 11-year-old son spent hours baking me a two-layer cake with frosting from real raspberries, and my 8-year-old son made a wooden castle in which the red mamas and the blue mamas battle it out over who will read to him. Why should gifts from one's children be so moving? Because you feel their love, of course. But also because you see their capacity for love, their attention and effort. If they can take pleasure in giving, they have a good chance of being happy in life.
— Nicole Krauss, author of, most recently, Forest Dark
6. I love to cook, and so did my father. Three weeks before my birthday, when he was dying in hospice, he had my mother order a Le Creuset pot in Granny Smith apple green to give me as an early present. He didn't make it to my birthday, but ten years later, he's still with me each day. Every time I make a pot of soup, I think of him and smile.
— Sara Radcliffe Cook, O reader
7. My mother and I had a tenuous relationship at best. For my high school graduation, I saved my babysitting money to get a dress made but didn't have enough to buy a purse. My mom spent all night sewing my leftover dress material onto one of her old clutches. I remember being gobsmacked. I still have it and occasionally hold it close to my heart when I miss her.
— Caterina Salvatori, O reader
Illustration: Todd St. John
8. I'm a special ed teacher, and one year a boy in my fifth-grade class lost his mother in a car accident while the family was traveling. I had him again the next year in sixth grade. At Christmastime he saw the other students giving me gifts, so he came in with a two-liter bottle of ginger ale. He said he looked around his house and wanted to get me something special, and he knew I liked soda. I cried. This boy has now graduated, but I never forgot the gift he gave me. It was truly from the heart.
— Diane castellano, O reader
9. I was 10 or 11 when I got my first dog, a hairy little black and white mutt I called Mopsy. I was a lonely and sullen child. My mother had just married my stepfather, and we were living in Bolivia. I hated my life, but I fell totally in love with Mopsy. She became my alter ego, saving me from years of unhappiness.
When I was 40, living in exile in Venezuela while my marriage fell apart, someone gave me another mutt, Mikaela, also black and white, very similar to Mopsy. She was always at my feet, like my shadow, my soul.
In my 70s, I was separating from my husband when someone gave me a third little black and white dog, Dulce—the Spanish word for "sweet." Dulce was with me throughout my divorce, and she's still my companion today. If Dulce doesn't live as long as I do, I'm sure she'll have a successor. For me, these funky- looking little dogs are all reincarnations of the same creature who keeps coming back to be with me at very important moments of my life.
— Isabel Allende, author of, most recently, In the Midst of Winter
10. My mom was in the hospital with stage IV ovarian cancer, and I was holding down two jobs to support the family, working all day and sleeping in the hospital at night. One morning I was heading to my first job when my car spun out on some black ice and hit the guardrail. I was scared, so I just kept going—but as I was slowing down at an intersection, the car behind me tapped my bumper. That's when I got out and saw that the guardrail had smashed in the front of my car on the driver's side. I was so dazed, I almost stepped right into traffic.
I told the other driver not to worry about fixing the back bumper, but he insisted, telling me his friend owned a body shop. A few days afterward, we met to talk about the details. It was late at night because I had to finish my second shift. The guy asked why I was working so much, so I told him; he said I should drop off the car and pick it up in two days. When I did, the entire car had been painted and buffed, and the front was fixed. He'd done the work himself. I asked how much it would all cost, but he just said, "You're a good person. Have a happy Valentine's Day."
— Mary Simson, O reader
11. When I was 5, my mother bought me a diary. It had a dark blue cardboard cover and a page for each day of the upcoming year. I'd recently learned to read and write, and my mom had noticed how much I loved doing both. "It's your very own book," she said. "You can write down what you do every day." That was more than 30 years ago, and I've written every day since.
— Lisa Ko, author of The Leavers
Illustration: Todd St. John
12. My husband booked me a nice hotel room the night before Prince William and Kate's wedding so I could wake up really early to watch it and then go back to bed. I had three children under 4 at the time, so it was a precious gift, and I will forever treasure that much-needed break doing something I absolutely loved.
— Casey Kitchens, O reader
13. I was recently on the phone with a dear friend, and as we were about to hang up, he said, "Remember: You are the loving expression of God." I almost fell down from the power of those words. Me, the loving expression of God. I've begun carrying that awareness with me daily—a most beautiful gift.
— Imbolo Mbue, author of Behold the Dreamers
14. When I was a kid, my grandmother, who lived across the country, would send me items of pink Depression glass that she found while antiquing—cups, saucers, plates, a pitcher. Since I was so young, these presents weren't as exciting as the toys she also gave me. She passed away when I was in college, and it wasn't until I was a grown woman that my mom and I set all the pieces out together. There were enough to fill a beautiful table. I finally understood that my grandmother was giving me something that would last my whole life, long after she'd gone.
— Kristin Brake Hancock, O reader
15. It was Christmas Eve 1945. I was 9 years old. Truth be told, it was a dark time for a child. My stepfather—"a good man when he wasn't drinking," my mother said—had given in to long days at the bar that ended in even longer nights of raging at home. Within six months, without a job to go to or a dollar in her pocket, my mother would take me and every stick of furniture we owned a hundred miles away. But tonight was the night before Christmas.
When she handed me the tiny box, hardly more than an inch square, I could taste my disappointment. Children don't want tiny presents. Children wait for big presents—a pair of skates, a bright red bike. I opened it slowly, my eyes averted, my fingers timid.
And suddenly there it was: a shining, delicate gold chain on which hung a little flower with copper leaves and a bright blue stone in the center. It was my first piece of jewelry, and a declaration of adulthood, I was sure. I knew my mother must have been skimming grocery money for weeks to get me something so grand. I threw my arms around her neck and burst into tears.
A few months ago, I found that necklace again in a box of old memorabilia. The chain was dull brown. The flower's leaves had faded. But the blue glass that I had been sure was my birthstone glowed on.
When I picked up this treasure I'd received amid the chaos of a collapsing world, I knew I was holding sacrifice, beauty, and an invitation to be strong in the days to come. I consider it the gift of my life, even now. Maybe especially now.
— Joan Chittister, Benedictine nun and author of, most recently, Radical Spirit
Illustration: Todd St. John
16. I always wanted an Easy-Bake Oven, but Santa never delivered one. When I was 34, my sister bought me one for Christmas. And yes, I made a cake!
— Suzanne Tesconi, O reader
17. My 18-year-old son gave me a Mother's Day card that said, "Mom, I love you.... Don't worry.... Throughout the years, I have heard everything you've said about life lessons; just in case you thought I wasn't listening."
—Brigett Slaughter, O reader
18. For my 40th birthday last year, my best friends—cousins, childhood pals, college roommates—conspired to buy me a ring. They live all over the country, and several of them had never been introduced until one friend gathered them in an email conversation about the gift. We spent a weekend at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, one of my favorite places, and at dinner one night they surprised me with it: a rose gold band that looks a little like a wedding band. I wear my wedding ring on my left hand and the one they gave me on my right as constant reminders of some of the most important people in my life—my husband and our sons, and the friends I love most. When I have to do something difficult or scary, the ring reminds me that I'm surrounded by brilliant, creative, risk-taking women and gives me the push I need to show up with bravery in my own life and work.
— Shauna Niequist, author of, most recently, Present Over Perfect
19. In the late '90s, my dad was in a department store when he spotted a very long, very bright red fleece robe. Something told him to buy it for me, and that something was probably that it was on sale. My dad loves sales. The amazing part is that I'd been yearning for a long fleece robe. I still wear it in the winter and even use it as an extra blanket on cold nights. "I just thought it looked so cozy," my dad told me almost 20 years ago, and he was right.
— Curtis Sittenfeld, author of, most recently, Eligible