Maybe it's impossible to top the gift that Rick and Janet Skidmore of Maumee received this year: their son's life.
As families all over the world celebrate Christmas today, tearing open packages and handing each other gift cards, people like the Skidmores will share gifts that are more profound and harder to measure.
It's like trying to stuff love in a gift bag. Can't be done; it's just too big. Sometimes the gift takes the form of service; sometimes it's expressed in writing. They're given and gratefully received throughout the year, not just during the holidays.
For Debbie Merritt of Lambertville, the best gift ever was the baby brother she prayed for; he arrived on Christmas Eve of 1959.
For Midge Kranz of Sylvania Township, it's a funny family photo created by her granddaughter that brings a smile every time she looks at it.
For Linda Hanthorn of Millbury, Ohio, it's a poem that her aunt wrote for her. "Gifts can be stolen or broken. This gift of words will stay with me forever," Ms. Hanthorn said via e-mail.
Others who are lucky enough to receive such gifts also cherish them.
Just ask the Skidmores.
That 18-year-old Jonathan Skidmore would survive a series of complications after open-heart surgery in July was a miracle - a gift from God, Mrs. Skidmore said.
But their thank-you list also includes doctors, nurses, therapists, priests, grade-school friends who gathered to pray for Jon, and high school friends who visited him and joined family friends, relatives, and even strangers in donating blood. Other people made the daily drive to Ann Arbor, where Jon was hospitalized for 84 days, to support Mr. and Mrs. Skidmore during their vigil.
Back home, people raised money to help pay bills, including the Skidmores' hotel near the hospital. Neighbors took care of the dog, sorted socks, fixed the toilet, cleaned out the refrigerator, and mowed the lawn.
"We were overwhelmed by everyone's generosity and kindness," Mrs. Skidmore wrote in an e-mail. "There is no way we can thank these people who gave some very special gifts to us."
Sue Crescitelli holds a cross-stitch piece her late sister gave her as a gift while recovering from surgery and chemotherapy.
In the spring of 1999, Sandy Snead was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After surgery and chemotherapy, she needed something to keep her mind and hands busy, said her sister, Sue Crescitelli of Sylvania.
So Mrs. Crescitelli gave her a Christmas-theme cross-stitch kit to work on. When her sister told her how complicated the piece was, Mrs. Crescitelli said, "I said don't worry about it." Nothing more was mentioned.
"That Christmas when I opened her gift to me, there was the cross-stitch piece, beautifully completed and framed," Mrs. Crescitelli wrote in an e-mail message. "I was overcome with emotion. We were together so much that summer I don't know how she found the time to do it without me seeing her working on it."
One of the panels in the piece shows two girls walking together. "She said she imagined that was us as children, and as she worked the pattern stitch by stitch, she remembered all the happy times we shared as sisters over the years.
"My beloved sister lost her battle last year. As I hang the picture up each season I will always be reminded of her faith and courage - and especially her love."
Kathie Koenigseker and her husband, Jim, hold letters from her children, who told her what they learned from her.
Not all of Kathie Koenigseker's four children could be with her when she turned 53 on Nov. 20, but her husband, Jim, made sure their hearts were in the right place.
Mr. Koenigseker of Sylvania asked the children - Shey in Toledo, Josh in Japan, Jonah in Brazil, and Chelsea in Kent, Ohio - to write a letter telling their mother what they had learned from her.
Shey thanked her for "allowing us to make our own choices, whether you agreed with them or not, and then picking us up when we fell."
From Chelsea: "You taught us values and morals You accepted and loved us for who we are."
Jonah said, "It was the love, encouragement, and advice that you passed along that made me able to do everything I have done in my life."
And Josh told her, "It's wonderful having a mother to be proud of."
Mrs. Koenigseker said that as she read the letters, she compared the experience to winning an Academy Award for her performance as a mother. "I call them my Oscar letters," she said.
Lucille Howe said that at 84, she doesn't need any more stuff. Fortunately, the West Toledo woman said via e-mail, "I have a very clever daughter who believes, as I do, that gifts of service and time are better than store-bought gifts."
Last year, the clever Peg Jarrett of Holiday Lakes, Ohio, presented her mom with "Lucy's Coupon Book of Gifts" that included such treats as "a road trip to see Christmas lights," "a lunch on the town with Peg," and "two hours of preparation for when you entertain bridge club." Other pages bore coupons for a manicure and car wash, which Mrs. Howe redeemed by getting the service and letting her daughter know how much it cost so she could be reimbursed.
Mrs. Howe said she also receives an annual basket of snack foods from two granddaughters who live in Columbus. Each Thanksgiving she returns the empty basket to them, along with a "wish list" of sorts - the empty packages of the goodies that she especially enjoyed in their previous assortment.
Toledo Councilman Ellen Gracheck says a decorated Christmas tree sent to her by a cousin came at a welcome time in December when she was struggling with exams while in law school.
No towering, fat Christmas tree could be a fraction as moving as the little evergreen that Ellen Grachek of West Toledo received four years ago when her holiday spirits were at a low ebb.
It was her third year of law school at the University of Toledo, said Ms. Grachek, Toledo's District 5 city councilman. With exams falling in mid-December, there was no time for celebrating or decorating.
"One cold December day, while I was studying the intricacies of business associations, my doorbell rang," she explained in an e-mail message. "On my front porch was a delivery person bearing an actual, two-foot Christmas tree, live and completely decorated with sparkly ribbon and shiny bulbs."
The tree was from her cousin, Heather Kern, who lives in Wisconsin.
"It is one of the most meaningful gifts I have ever received. She didn't give me just a tree; she gave me true Christmas spirit when I needed it most," Ms. Grachek wrote.
She still has the card that Heather sent with the tree. It read: "What do you mean you don't have a Christmas tree????? I hope you did well on your exam."
Ms. Grachek said she doesn't remember what grade she got, "but I remember that my cousin was looking out for me."
A Christmas Eve storm left a thick blanket of snow and huge drifts in the Millbury driveway of Sandra and Stephen Shaffer several years ago. Inside the house, Mr. Shaffer was recuperating from surgery, and Mrs. Shaffer was preparing a holiday dinner for 12 - and wondering how her guests would make it through the snow up the three-car-wide, 66-foot-long driveway.
"It must have been 7 a.m. and I heard a noise and I looked out and there was a man cleaning my driveway, and I was so overwhelmed I was almost in tears," Mrs. Shaffer said. It was a neighbor, Ronnie Gray, who lives about four doors away.
"It was just like a Christmas angel," she said.
Mrs. Shaffer said Mr. Gray wouldn't take any payment for clearing the driveway. "When I said isn't there something I can do for you, he said, no, you've done enough," she recalled. Mr. Gray reminded her that Mr. Shaffer and their sons had helped him put up a basketball post years earlier.
The Shaffers had forgotten all about that; lending a hand is "just something we do," Mrs. Shaffer said.
Mr. Gray has cleared the driveway many times since then, she added. But that first snowy-morning surprise was "the true meaning of Christmas."
"It was probably the most meaningful Christmas present I've ever had," she said.
Contact Ann Weber at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6126.