Buying presents is always a challenge for me, especially when it comes to finding the right birthday present. There’s the tried and true-flowers, gift certificates, perfume-but I had a particularly difficult time finding the right gift for my Mom’s birthday this year. She turned 75, and I wanted to do something different for her. When I asked her what she’d like to have, she responded, “Don’t worry about my birthday. I have everything I need.” That is true, and she is able, thankfully, to still provide for herself. Yet, I still felt that it was important to give her something special. Since my husband, boys and I live some distance away from where she is, and the kids are in school when her birthday rolls around, I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it to her home for the day. What could I do for her?
Then the idea hit me. Earlier in the year my Mother made a beautiful bridal shower gift for my oldest niece, her oldest granddaughter. She collected family recipes and put together a book that contained the recipes as well as photos of her and her granddaughter in the kitchen, plus stories that related to each recipe. For example, my Mom included a recipe for pork roast, and along with the recipe she told a story about the pet pig she had when she was a child. A couple months later my sister followed suit and began compiling a memory book for her new son-in-law (my niece’s husband). She held a send off party for him and had the guests write their own pages to include in the book.
I began thinking about these two presents, and how they were truly gifts from the heart. I decided I wanted to put together a book for our Mother. I began wracking my brain to come up with ideas and memories, but then began thinking about those who have known her over the years. I wanted to include these people in the book as well. I started by calling my sister and nieces to see if they would write something for Mom, and I also collected photographs of our family members. After that, I began calling and e-mailing our distant relatives, former neighbors, former co-workers, and my sister’s and my childhood friends to see if they would send a photo and a letter to be included in the book. They were happy to be a part of this project.
As I received photos and letters from people who live in Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, and Texas, the story of my mother’s life began to unfold. Many told her how much she means to them and how much they love her. A friend that Mom has known for over 30 years wrote down memories of the cruise they took to Mexico in 1975, neighborhood parties, and dance lessons. One of my childhood friends reminisced about how my Mom would take us to the library when we were kids, confessing that was the only time she went to the library when she was younger. My cousin wrote to her, saying she was his favorite aunt because she seemed so ëexotic’ since he lived in Illinois and we were in far-off California.
But the most touching sentiments came from my nieces and my 13-year-old son, about their ëNana.’ My older son wrote: “If only mere words could explain how much I love and cherish you. You have the great gift of being able to make everyone that you meet feel special in his or her own way. I’m glad for the time we are able to spend together, but sad that I get to see less of you. Happy birthday. Love, Alex.”
Julie Engelhardt is a freelance writer in Central California specializing in family and home and garden writing. She lives with her husband and two sons, ages 4 and 13.