Enter the holiday shopping season and let the gift-buying frenzy for iPads, Legos and cable-knit sweaters begin. Just know that such baubles may soon be forgotten — that is, if the St. Petersburg Times' regional staffers are any indication. Here, we offer our best gifts ever, from any occasion or holiday. As you'll see, our most cherished presents came wrapped in childhood dreams come true, in memories and lessons learned.
The Bionic Girl
When I was growing up, dinner was promptly at 6 p.m. in the dining room. There, we shared the day's events, often with some far-fetched story from my dad. One evening nearing Christmas, the question of gifts came up. My three siblings named coveted toys — a doll whose hair could turn from brown to blonde, an Evel Knievel stunt bike and a stuffed toy Cookie Monster. Me? I just wanted one thing, but I knew they'd all laugh if I said it out loud.
"What is it?" my father asked.
"It's a secret," I told him.
It was the mid '70s, and I lived for a weekly TV dose of The Bionic Woman. Jaime Sommers, injured in a skydiving accident, had been rebuilt with a super-powered ear, arm and legs. Every week she escaped dicey situations to a slow-motion, pulsating soundtrack: Da na na na na na na.
She was unstoppable — while I lived within my mere mortal third-grade means.
That night around the table my father insisted. He took me to the bathroom where I whispered in his ear: "I want to be bionic."
Under our Christmas tree, I found a Bionic Woman doll.
— Elisabeth Parker, Times staff writer
Little Trinkets, Big Love
At first, I was ashamed of the knickknacks my mom gave me for college graduation — one of the most momentous days of my life.
A $5 gift book so tiny it fit in my pocket, a mirror with a Scripture on it and a bottle of perfume.
She had raised me and my brother on her own, always struggling to make ends meet. I knew she couldn't afford the cars, the diamond necklaces and other gifts my classmates received.
But looking back, that made my relatives' trips from Ohio and Kentucky to Florida A&M University even more special.
My mother bought plane tickets for herself and my little brother, Ty, searched Tallahassee for a motel they could afford, and set aside cash for food.
Along for the 1,000-mile trip were my Uncle Rodney and Aunt Sharon, who was battling kidney disease. She even scheduled a dialysis treatment in Tallahassee.
None of them ever complained about how the trip taxed their bodies, their patience or their wallets. After the ceremony, they hugged me tight and said how proud they were of me.
My aunt died a few years later. It was one of the last trips my family took together. And they did it all for me.
— Tia Mitchell, Times staff writer
Stuffed Doggie, Goldie
I remember tearing away at the paper and opening the box.
My 8-year-old eyes widened at the sight of the floppy-eared stuffed dog I'd spotted on sale months before Christmas. I grabbed the toy and squeezed it tight.
It had soft golden fur, so I named it — which I decided was a him — Goldie. On Christmas Day, I held onto Goldie through dinner. At bedtime, I brought him to sleep with me. It continued like this for years. Wherever I went, whatever I did, there was Goldie, my own little Velveteen Rabbit.
I spilled food on him and shed tears on him. I let my friends toss him around at slumber parties. Time and again, he went through the wash. His fur turned coarse. His eyes barely hung on, but he remained my No. 1 toy until, as a preteen, I moved him into my closet. My mom still has him at her house, tucked away among treasures that have lost their meaning. But Goldie has yet to lose his. Every time I see him, I'm reminded of that Christmas.
— Sarah Whitman, Times staff writer
Ride 'Em Cowboy
It was 1954, I was 6 and I'm guessing that my cowboy outfit wasn't up to par. If an earlier picture serves as any guide, I didn't own a pair of boots, and my holster wasn't big enough for my six-shooter; the barrel extended too far out the bottom of it, making me look more like a comic sidekick than a cowboy hero.
I needed a new outfit, and on Christmas morning, Santa came through for me. I still remember being thrilled and amazed by the magical appearance of the gift under the tree — a new hat, vest, chaps, boots and twin six-shooters that fit in the holsters!
Amazingly, Santa brought the same cowboy gear to Johnny Hatcher, my best friend two houses down.
It may have been the season of peace, but we spent the next few days in blissful gunplay, shooting imaginary bad guys and each other, falling dead and getting up again to carry on the fight till dinner time.
— Philip Morgan, Times staff writer
A Sega Lesson
I was 9 in 1986 when two mustached, overall-wearing Italian plumbers known as the Mario Brothers were stomping mushrooms, raking gold coins and turning teens into homebound hermits.
America was becoming a Nintendo nation.
I begged and begged to join. My parents finally gave in and took me to Sears. I danced up to the Nintendo Entertainment System display only to find it … out of stock.
I was devastated. Across the aisle was another game system that lurked like the bad guy at a bar looking to pounce on broken hearts: the Sega Master System.
Unlike Nintendo, there were plenty. I looked at the box. The graphics seemed good. The all-black console seemed sleeker. I wanted something …
"I'll take this," I told my parents.
I went home in glee. It did have decent graphics. The games were okay.
But I soon learned that I might as well have bought an Android instead of an iPhone. None of my friends had Sega. They were playing Nintendo's Tecmo Bowl, while I had obscure knockoffs like Sega's Great Football.
Determined to have fun, I played that Sega for years — my parents had paid $100 for it. But the experience taught me something:
— Justin George, Times staff writer
Paris, Mon Cherie?
Three glorious weeks in Paris with my grandmother and great-aunt. It was the summer before my wedding, and I was 20 years old. The question lingered en plein air: Who was chaperoning whom? Each morning, I skipped out early to French class at the Sorbonne while the 70-somethings dressed leisurely over cafe and croissants summoned from the Hotel Lambert concierge.
I returned by noon to begin my second set of daily lessons: window shopping on Avenue Montaigne, easel peeking in Montmartre, fittings at Madame Cadolle's, where the ladies each ordered a custom-made corset. Can you imagine?
Every outing introduced the finer things in life — Porthault linens, Dior lingerie, Chanel No. 5 — ending at our favorite sidewalk cafe for their afternoon Scotch.
Like French author Colette's ingenue Gigi, I lapped up each pearl of wisdom the savvy sisters shared. One was a milliner, the other owner of Philadelphia's most exclusive haute-fashion boutique, opened in 1929 and still thriving.
Mon dieu, how fortunate I was to be the beneficiary of all that charm and etiquette. Grandma Helen lived to 95; Aunt Sophy to 101. Not a day goes by that I don't call on the social graces they bestowed that summer.
— Amy Scherzer, Times staff writer
Forget about landmarks and signposts; the route to my grandmother's Atlanta home is marked with a lifetime of memories.
Instead of going over the river and through woods, we exited Interstate 20, then cruised down Ashby Street, through the Morehouse College campus, and turned left on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. That familiar route remains more a part of my holiday reminiscing than Christmas tree tinsel or elaborate gifts.
For more than 80 years, "Grandmama's House" remained practically the same, with all the furniture and decorative touches in their familiar spots.
When she turned 85, relatives from near and far started celebrating her birthday between Christmas and New Year's Day, or shortly thereafter, given that her birthday was Jan. 9. Little did we know she would live to be 107, or be saluted in President Barack Obama's election night speech.
My favorite Christmas gift always has been spending time with family, especially my grandmother, Ann Nixon Cooper. Now that she's gone — she died in 2009 — my relatives and I don't get together as much as we used to, even though we promised we would continue the tradition.
It's as if we're planets that no longer have the sun to revolve around.
— Ernest Hooper, Times staff writer
Fanny Pack for Charity
The worst gift I've ever received may actually have been the best.
The year was 2004. The gift: a patchwork leather fanny pack, circa 1991.
Upon opening it, my face turned red. Green, purple and brown pieces of leather stared back at me. A belt with a plastic buckle. Zippers everywhere!
I quickly hid my initial reaction. It was a gift from my husband's grandma at one of the first Christmases I spent with his family. I thanked her profusely. I raved about its beauty and practicality — no more muggings! I may have even put it on.
A few days later, I discreetly donated it to charity.
Sadly, Grandma Carol died before I was able to get to know her better. But now, when the family swaps stories of the woman who helped shape their lives, I have a story to share, too.
"Remember that time Grandma got me a fanny pack?"
— Shelley Rossetter, Times staff writer
The Sweetest Perfume
We had refused to see the signs — the late nights, the missing $20 bills, the time he didn't pick me up from cheerleading camp. Until the truth loomed obvious.
My brother was addicted to crack cocaine.
For two decades, fear dotted the family time line. Dealers at the door with guns. Stolen VCRs. My mother's car gone. Him missing for days. Was he still alive?
I went off to college, then moved far away. Please, don't call and tell me that he was on the streets, no shoes, no coat, like a homeless man.
I'd go to church, return home and pray: God if you can part the seas, move mountains, heal the blind, will you deliver my brother?
Relapse. Sober. Relapse again.
Then, April 2008: He admitted himself to a residential treatment facility. He had a job and support through Narcotics Anonymous. He was tired, he said, and ready. May, June, July… Still clean. August, September, October. …
For the first time in years, he said, he'd be home for Christmas.
In he walked that day, looking healthy, even bearing gifts.
A little perfume set, Desire, from Victoria's Secret.
— Sharon Tubbs, Times staff writer
Slide Show of Memories
My Dad documents life better than Facebook does. For every graduation, every vacation, every move into a new apartment, he's there — and he brings a camera.
We watch our lives in photos and videos every Christmas, when he unveils the annual family slide show. Set to pop hits with meaningful themes (think Katy Perry's Firework), the cinematic production showcases both our best sides and our goofiest ones. My dad has a knack for capturing the candid, like the jigs we dance in parking lots when we think no one is looking.
As my siblings and I grow up and venture out, the slide show offers us a chance to relive what we've missed in our increasing time apart: my sister's college antics, my brother's adventures at Red Sox games, my parents' doting on the dogs to fill their empty nest.
But the slide shows always start with the previous year's Christmas, all of us together.
— Stephanie Wang, Times staff writer