The holiday season puts a big emphasis on giving. Shoppers are combing the Internet and crowding store aisles to buy presents for family and friends. Donors are making annual contributions, and many people tuck checks into envelopes for hair stylists and housekeepers.
But the greatest gift might not come from Amazon or Target. We asked eight people to describe their favorite gift—no matter the time of year. Their answers varied, but all of them associate their prized gift with a memory— not a price tag.
David Crawford is a self-professed Fender man. A guitarist with the band Crash Harris, he’s often seen performing with his Stratocaster or Telecaster. But the guitar he loves the most is the Epiphone his daughters, Kelly and Katrina, gave him in 2008.
Crawford is a huge fan of Bob Marley, and the limited-edition Les Paul—the same style that Marley used—bears the likeness of the reggae icon on its mahogany body. Inlays on the neck are the colors of the Jamaican flag, and “One Love” is scrawled across the head neck. It came in a hemp bag with a certificate signed by Rita Marley, “which was impressive,” says Crawford, who lives in the Prices Corner area of Delaware.
“It was a complete surprise,” Crawford says of the gift. “I about had a heart attack. I was floored.”
The guitar “plays great,” he says, but he prefers to keep it as a showpiece in his 15-guitar collection. “I’ve very close to my daughters,” he says. “It was a thoughtful, wonderful gift.”
Karen Falk was working as the executive director of Southern Delaware Tourism when she met husband-to-be, Jim Falk, who was then the associate director of the Delaware Sea Grant Program at the University of Delaware in Lewes. When a tourism group board member hinted that they might make a good couple, Karen got a funny feeling in her stomach. “I thought she might be right,” she recalls.
Then a single mom, she put the idea aside. But sparks ignited in 2003, when they collaborated on a tourism luncheon and met at Striper Bites to discuss the data Jim could contribute from his research. They started dating, and when things got serious, they decided to vacation in Atlantis, a resort in the Bahamas, with Karen’s daughter, Shannon, who was 8 at the time. “She wanted to swim with the dolphins, and we wanted to mesh as a family unit,” Karen says.
After spending time with the dolphins, the instructor asked each person in the group of 12 to say their name and hometown. Before the session ended, the instructor pointed to a dolphin named Fat Man, who’d starred in the 1996 remake of Flipper. He had a gift for someone.
The dolphin held a bottle in its mouth as he swam toward Karen. He dropped the bottle and nosed it toward her. Through the glass, she could see a rolled-up letter. Knowing what it might say, she started shaking. “The woman from New Jersey next to me had to help me read it,” she says.
She turned to see her husband-to-be on one knee. “Of course, I’ll marry you!” she said to everyone’s delight.
The couple wed on June 24, 2006. Close family members received wedding invitations in a bottle, and the bottle from Atlantis had a prominent place on the wedding cake. The proposal and the nautical wedding theme were appropriate, considering that Jim became the director of Delaware Sea Grant. He’s since retired. Karen is now the executive director of Rehoboth Main Street.
Daughter Shannon had always wanted a little brother or sister, and she got her wish on March 17, 2007, when her mother gave birth to James Jr. Karen counts her engagement ring—and the family of four it represents—as one of her greatest gifts. And the proposal makes for a fun story. “Jim,” she says, “is one classy guy.”
Wilmington, Del.’s Sue St. Laurent was once such a white-knuckle flyer that she restricted her travel to the East Coast. Fortunately, her daughter, Danielle, didn’t inherit that fear. After graduating from college, Danielle traveled around Europe. “She saw so many things and thought, ‘My mom would love this!’” says St. Laurent.
Danielle urged her mother to go to Europe, but St. Laurent shook her head. There was no way she could fly over the ocean. “I’d be terrified,” she admits.
So Danielle and her brothers, Jason and Adam, decided to take matters into their own hands, buying their mother plane tickets to Paris. “I thought it was a wonderful surprise, but the thought of following through with it was off-putting,” she says.
She didn’t have much choice. Not only did her children schedule the trip, but they also planned to accompany her. During the flight, she was often filled with terror, particularly when the plane ascended and descended. “There was no easy fix for that,” she acknowledges. “However, it was much more manageable than I thought it would be.”
The family has since made annual trips to Paris. “I’ve been an avid traveler ever since,” St. Laurent says. “It’s the second time my kids changed my life.”
When her son moved to London, she flew by herself several times “with nobody to hold my hand,” she says. “I became used to it.”
She recently paid the gift forward by giving her sister a ticket to London for her 60th birthday. “She had the exact same look on her face that I did when I received a ticket,” she says.
But if she follows in St. Laurent’s footsteps, she’ll become a more frequent flyer in no time.
When Deny Howeth was 15 and growing up in the Lewes-Milton, Del., area, children across the country made their Christmas wish lists while thumbing through the glossy pages of a Sears catalog. Howeth stopped flipping when she came to the cameras. At the time, she was fascinated by Linda McCartney, then the wife of musician and former Beatle Paul McCartney. Howeth, however, was more interested in McCartney’s photography. “I said, ‘I’m going to do that,’” she recalls.
In those pre-Internet days, she headed to the library to read about different types of cameras. “I figured out precisely which camera and lens I wanted,” she says. “I studied how to take photographs before I got the camera. I wanted enough knowledge to start shooting.”
Under the tree that year was a Canon AE-1 and a 50-millimeter lens. Howeth hit the ground running with the support of her art teacher at Cape Henlopen High School, which had a new dark room.
After studying at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, Howeth returned to the beaches to take photos, print them and offer them on spec to The Whale newspaper, which often published them. Her career as a photographer was officially born. She put aside the camera when she became an art director for magazines in Las Vegas and Phoenix. But her love for photography and the Delaware beaches was too strong to resist. She returned to both.
Howeth now works full time for the Lewes-based Cape Gazette and freelances on the side. She also sells framed prints of her photographs and uses them to make jewelry and cards. More recently, she’s started digitally transferring images onto tile and wood.
And it all started with a Christmas gift from Sears. “It was an important gift because it’s what I’m still doing,” she says. “It’s something that’s been with me almost my entire life. Being a photographer has been my bliss. It cheers me up, gets me through, and it’s my living.”
Hillary Holland was about 3 when she told her parents she wanted a talking doll for Christmas. It was the 1960s, and she pined for Mrs. Beasley, the doll made popular by the show Family Affair. “I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” says Holland, who grew up in Indian Field, a community near Arden, Del.
Her parents, however, thought she’d said, “talking dog,” which was much harder to find, and they searched the local stores looking for one. On Christmas morning, Holland unwrapped her gift and pulled out Bernie Bernard, a Mattel “Animal Yacker” with a keg under his chin and a string dangling near his armpit. When she pulled the string, Bernie uttered about six sentences in a goofy voice.
Holland’s heart fell. She’d counted on a doll, not a dog. “I cried and played with the box,” she recalls.
But it didn’t take long for her to fall in love with the floppy-eared stuffed toy. For a long time, Bernie remained secure in her bedroom, even when she went to college. When Holland was 30, she brought Bernie to her own home, where she was successful in keeping it out of the hands of her two children.
Bernie took on greater meaning after the deaths of her mother in 2012 and her father in 2013. He represents the lengths they went to show their love, she says. “Bernie Bernard is a reminder of how wonderful and warm my childhood was, and how amazing my parents were,” says Holland, who now lives in Kennett Square, Pa. “I appreciate them more every day.”
Bernie Bernard now fetches up to $100 on eBay. Holland isn’t tempted. “Not for sale,” she says.
Rosanne Cox grew up knowing that she and her two brothers were adopted but not related. Each child has different biological parents. She wasn’t interested in finding her birth parents, particularly after her brothers were disappointed by the results of their searches. “I was like, ‘Note to self: Don’t do that; don’t go there,’” she says. “I didn’t want to set myself up to be rejected.”
That didn’t change when her mother let it slip that one of the children had birth parents who’d planned to marry. Now and again, she wondered if she had biological siblings.
After a bout with breast cancer, Cox, a nurse, realized that knowing her family history might help her make decisions about her health. She and her daughter, Jennifer, discussed trying 23andMe, which offers reports on genetic health risks, carrier status and ancestry. In December 2017, Jennifer called to tell Cox that she’d ordered a 23andMe kit as a gift. If Cox didn’t want it, she could give it back. Cox decided to go for it. “I got my spit together, and I sent in the test,” she says.
A month later, Cox got her results. “Bring out the lox and bagels,” she told her daughter about their heritage. It wasn’t a stretch. Cox had been raised Jewish. There were no worrisome health markers, but the DNA relationship reported that she had 1,100 cousins. At the top of the relationship list was a nephew with a distinctive last name. In this digital age, she quickly found him on Facebook. Before she reached out, however, Cox wanted to be sure of the connection.
She spent a month trying to find the nephew’s parents. Finally, she uncovered the name of the nephew’s mother, whose Facebook photo alarmed her. The woman looked just like Cox. “I had to stop and wrap my head around the fact that it wasn’t me,” she says. “We looked so much alike.”
A friend with a subscription to an ancestry database helped Cox locate her sibling’s birth certificate in public records. However, there were no death records for the parents. She summoned the courage and sent the nephew a message. “As soon as I hit ‘send’ I felt so vulnerable,” she says. A few days later, she heard from her biological sister, who said, “We’ve been looking for you for years.”
Cox learned that she was born in Wilmington, Del., when her father was working for the DuPont Co. Her father is Jewish; her mother is not. They moved after Cox was adopted, married and had three more daughters and a son who only learned about Cox as adults.
In April 2018, Cox met her mother in Colorado. On Father’s Day, she met her dad, who still lives in California. “He is the kindest, sweetest and sharpest man at 91 years old,” she says. “I hit the jackpot.”
Cox is the only child who was raised Jewish, and her father is delighted when she understands Yiddish words. He was also amazed when she told him she lives close to the Experimental Station, where he once worked.
She’s met all her siblings and talks to them frequently. “They are warm and welcoming,” she says. “We talk for hours. I never had sisters—they’re so much fun. Who knew?”
Cox’s daughter, Jennifer, refers to Cox’s biological family as her “natives.” Cox thinks of them as a bonus family. “Jennifer has decided that she never needs to get me another gift. There’s no way to top this one,” Cox says. “I’m good with that.”
In 1991, when Ann Vaughn was a senior at Rutgers University, she and her roommate spotted an ad for English as a Second Language teachers in Poland. “I don’t even know Polish,” Vaughn says.
But her roommate did, and she urged Vaughn to accompany her to the meeting. Given that the job market was tight, and their only cost was the price of the airline ticket to Poland, the women signed up for the four-week paid assignment. They traveled to Poland the summer after graduation.
At that time, Poland had just transitioned to a democracy and was becoming more Westernized—though few people spoke English. To place a call home, Vaugh had to notify the operator and wait up to two hours before it went through. “It was a culture shock,” says Vaughn, who initially was homesick.
In the evening, the women met with adults, including lawyers and doctors, who wanted to practice American English. During the day, they went to classes in elementary and middle schools so students could talk to people whose native language was English.
On her last day in one class, the students all stood up and belted out all stood up and belted out “Cecelia,” the Simon & Garfunkel song, while teachers from other classes watched, beaming with pride. The students had practiced for two weeks, and they were eager to sing the lyrics in English. “I have no idea why they chose that song,” she says.
Now, the song will always remind her of that life-changing trip. Vaughn had never been abroad before, and the women often had to think on their feet at a time when there were no smartphones or computers. When they took the wrong train in Berlin, they had to cope with it on their own. After their assignment ended, the friends backpacked around Europe using only guidebooks. Once they arrived in a city, they made calls to youth hostels on pay phones. “I feel like my kids will miss out on that sense of being self-reliant,” she says.
When she stood before the singing students, Vaughn was embarrassed to be the focus of attention, but she was also overjoyed, a feeling that’s grown over time. “It was such a fond experience,” says Vaughn, who lives in Kennett Square, Pa. “For me, the gifts that mean the most are the ones that create a flood of feelings that you just can’t forget. Somebody did something that was unexpected, and it might not have a monetary value to it at all—it’s just the thoughtfulness of it.”
Instead of touring Disney World or taking a trip to the beach, James Berman and his three children—Noah, Abby and Olivia—often spend family vacations with musician Dave Matthews. Well, sort of.
Since 2011, the Bermans have volunteered with the nonprofit Reverb, which uses concerts as a way to promote environmentalism. Volunteer tasks might include setting up an on-site eco-village, encouraging fans to support a cause, promoting sustainability, overseeing games like cornhole, and keeping fans hydrated. In exchange, they get to see the show.
In the summer of 2016, the Bermans worked at seven Dave Matthews Band concerts. The last stop was Pittsburgh, Berman’s hometown. In addition to the show, they went to the amusement park Dad has loved since he was a child. “One of Dave Matthews’ songs is ‘The Last Stop,’” says Berman, a New Castle, Del., resident. “We made a weekend out of it.”
At that point, the band had no plans to tour the next summer. Noah planned to join the Marines, which he did in fall 2018. “We didn’t know if we’d be able to volunteer together again. It was a big deal,” says Berman of the Pittsburgh trip.
Berman rarely buys souvenirs, but he did stop to examine a Dave Matthews Band tour shirt in Pittsburgh’s signature black-and-gold colors. His children took note, and they surprised him with the shirt, which is now part of his “sacred shirt stack.” He only dips into the collection when he needs to have a good day or get some positive mojo.
More recently, Noah gave his father’s hometown pride a boost with tickets to a Pirates game before he joined the service. Father and son sat two rows above the dugout. Unbeknownst to Noah, Berman had a surprise in store. Before the game, he called the Pirates organization, which has a military family program. At the event, his son received autographed memorabilia and saw his name on the big screen. “That,” Berman says with satisfaction, “was really cool.”