My parents toiled for everything they had, sometimes just making it paycheck to paycheck, though they never let on.
Still, my sister and I never wanted for anything. Especially on Christmas mornings when Santa would magically transform our small living room into something more closely resembling a toy store around a tinseled tree.
Of all the wonderful presents over time, one special gift remains-a plain-looking wool blanket. It was a gift from my father, a construction electrician who was often gone from home on jobs. One winter he found himself working near the textile factory where the blanket was made.
Its value comes not from the price tag it once wore but something more precious. It's not just a blanket when I wrap it around me every night from fall to spring, but rather my father's protective embrace that makes all the wrongs in the world right.
I thought about this rather odd childhood present-coming from my usually very unsentimental father-as the toy catalogs began arriving before Halloween this year. My baby, Zoe, lingered over every toy in the catalogs, imagining a world filled with Dora, Barbie, princesses and a play kitchen. "Mommy, I want this. Oh, and this. I'd really like this. I need this. I want that … and that… and that." My 7-year-old, Arlee, is a bit more cognizant that Santa has a limit, but began a wish list that would put the old elf in debt until 2008. My 10-year-old, Marty, simply hopes for baseball cards and an electric guitar.
I'm sure your kids are giving you their wish lists, too.
Help is here. This month we'll show you some of the best and worst toys in our annual Toy Test, with special thanks to our dozens of "expert" toy testers and their teachers who played their hardest to give you the best guidance possible as you head into the crowds. Some toys you'll find in the catalogs and on store shelves, some you'll find are easier to track down online.
After reading the stories, there are a few toys I know I'm putting on my kids' lists. But while I do my own shopping, I'll also be searching for ways to slip in little lessons about giving to others and caring beyond themselves, lessons that will carry my kids past Barbie and baseball through life's realities.
We rarely pass a Salvation Army red kettle without throwing in some change. We've adopted needy children off angel trees only to thrill at filling their wishes and we buy bags of groceries for the hunger drives through school.
These vital life lessons are all around us this time of year, whether at the Salvation Army, United Way-supported agencies, churches, food banks or nursing homes.
So it was only a matter of time before someone created something online to help parents and grandparents more easily teach these lessons. Enter the Markmakers Foundation at www.markmakers.org, the brain child of Eric Garfinkel, founder of Back to Basics Toys. The online store allows kids to use special gift cards to make their own difference in the world, from helping buy a cow or goat for nomadic families, to feeding and caring for retired research chimpanzees or retired animal circus performers, to helping pay for children to get facial deformity surgery to promoting peace.
Finding a way to make your own mark, and teaching your children how to make theirs, need not cost you anything. Sometimes the only cost is time, still a precious commodity for today's busy families. But the value you get back from helping others can't fit on a standard price tag, just like my wool blanket.
I wish all of you happy days this month making lasting memories with someone you love and making a difference around us.