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A gift with no wrapping required

The conversations in our household this week have been about "the best Christmas gift ever received in your lifetime."

We've decided not to do much actual gifting, so we are relying on nostalgia to help us stay in the spirit of the season.

My husband recalls a metal Tonka Road Grater he got when he was about 7 years old. The memory is enhanced by the awareness his parents would have had a hard time affording the expense of that gift.

I recall the first year of my relationship with my spouse. He gave me several gifts. As he said at the time, "Each gift represents one of the things I love about you." (You can see why I married him a few years later.)

I remember receiving something red and lacy and a book of Rainier Maria Rilke poetry. This is the same husband who gave me an electric can opener one Christmas not long after we married, so don't get the idea he is without flaws in the giving-of-gifts category. Just want to keep things in perspective.

Today I'm thinking that stories are gifts. In looking for our Christmas ornaments, I found a box of old love letters. I suspect you may have a few somewhere, as well. I discovered dozens of flimsy, airmail envelopes containing pages of linen-like paper covered in fine-pointed, blue ink. There were several letters my father sent to my mother during World War II.

My now-deceased parents were both in the military. In the fall of 1944, on a Washington, D.C., street, they had a random encounter. I can envision it — they were in uniform and my mother was accompanied by some of her Women's Marines bunkmates. My dad was alone. They exchanged some light banter and well-wishing and went their separate ways. It was the day before my father was scheduled to be shipped overseas.

The story goes that dad sent mom a letter as soon as he arrived in Europe. She had a higher military rank than he did, so even writing it took a bit of courage. The letter went something like this: "I'm very happy to inform you that I am in love with you. I would like to present myself as a prospective husband.

"Don't worry if you aren't sure you feel the same about me — I have enough love for both of us."

That particular letter (one of several, but not all that many) also contained a carefully worded summary of a night reconnaissance mission he had been on and concluded with detail on what his K-rations had consisted of that day.

They were married just before Christmas a year later. Forty-two years, three children and a series of small brown dogs all named "Trudy" followed. But that's another story altogether.

This year we've asked our adult children to defer on giving holiday gifts to us and encouraged instead a donation to the charity of their choice. And we have strongly suggested they consider doing more around-the-tree storytelling, perhaps starting with "what's the best Christmas gift you ever received" and expanding the conversation in whatever direction people choose to take it.

It's quite a gift, you know — a tenderly reflected moment. No wrapping required.

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