December 2, 2021

Readers tell their stories of the gifts they remember most

Photo courtesy Frank Kelly

Frank Kelly of Cortland shares the best gift he ever received -- not the fish -- but a trip to Key West with a friend to go fishing with fishing legend Tom Rowland.

We asked Cortland Standard readers to tell us their own stories of their best gifts ever. Sometimes the gift was an old memory returned. Sometimes it was a new memory of fishing with a legend.
They’ll never be forgotten.

The month before my 16th birthday, my high school choir did two of the choruses from “Messiah” for the Christmas concert — definitely “Hallelujah,” and either “And The Glory” or “For Unto Us A Child is Born.”
These were new to me, and I was smitten. So for my 16th birthday in January, my parents gave me the entire “Messiah” on LP records, in a white pseudo-leather album. I played those records over and over, to the point where my favorites are visible on the records due to wear.
It has been years since we had a turntable, but I still have the album, more over 60 years later. It is worn and a bit tattered. It is cherished.
And every time I hear something from “Messiah,” I feel loved and understood all over again.
— Judy Cain
I taught preschool for many years. During a staff training one spring, the icebreaker activity was to share a favorite childhood memory. My favorite childhood memory is listening to the Story of the Nativity on 8-track at Christmas.
Yes, I said 8-track. My grandfather had a farm, and would even get all the chores done early on Christmas Eve to come in to play the 8-track for all us grandkids to hear the story.
The only thing I could remember about the 8-track was that it had a photo of a cowboy on it in a giant Christmas wreath. I also remembered that the guy telling the story kept getting interrupted by some little kid asking questions and there was singing.
I said I was sad I had not heard it in years because we no longer have 8-tracks or 8-track players, and I had no idea how to track down the recording.
One of the other teachers, my co-worker, took the time to figure out that what I was describing was Gene Autry’s “His Christmas Album.” She found me a copy of the album on CD and gave it to me for Christmas that year.
I had completely forgotten about telling that story at a training more than six months before. The gift was a complete surprise.
It was the first time since I was a child that I had seen or heard the album. It brought me to tears. I listen to the CD every year at Christmas, and it always brings back some of the best memories of my life.
— Rachel Anderson, McGraw
The best gift I received was a week after Christmas, Dec. 31, 2002, I married the love of my life, Jared Yocum.
— Shelly Nichols Yokum, McGraw
The best gift I received was a birthday gift given to me a couple years ago by my children. It was a complete surprise and was a book of photos with captions and prose titled, “My Wonderful Life.”
It begins with photos of me as an infant with my parents, who passed away many years ago. It tells my story from toddler through graduations, marriage, children, wonderful trips, to the present.
My children do not live locally, but somehow managed to sneak photos to copy from my albums when they visited. A true labor of love and a gift I treasure.
— Marilyn Miller, Homer
This is not a story about the best gift I’ve ever received, but a very special one. It begins with a phone call.
“Hey, Cuz. I’ve got a proposition for you. I’m headed for Key West after the Holidays to do some fishing and was wondering if you’d like to join me?”
It’s my cousin Craig. We were close growing up but have been out of touch.
“Sounds exciting but I haven’t been fishing in years. And that trip sounds expensive.”
“Did I mention, I’ll be paying for the guide, the motel and the rental car. You just need to cover your food and airfare.”
“Let me think about it (translation: ask my wife).” I say “and call you back.”
Her response was emphatic. “Of course you’re going. Mrs. Claus will cover your airfare.”
It was snowing the morning I left for Florida. Stepping off the plane in Fort Lauderdale was like stepping onto an alien planet — green, warm and muggy. We picked up the car and headed south, Craig talking nonstop about how much fun we were going to have.
“Tom Rowland is a world-class guide,” he said. “And the nightlife in Key West is to die for.” By the time we checked into our motel I was like a little kid on Christmas Eve.
We met Rowland before daybreak the next morning and dropped anchor off a sunken wreck 40 minutes later.
“Cobia,” he announced. “They love this wreck.”
“Nice fish,” my cousin added.
Craig had a fish on in minutes. I missed several bites before setting my first hook. Whatever had taken my bait was a lot bigger than the sunfish or bluegills I’d caught as a boy.
“Let it take some line, then take up slack,” Rowland barked. “Now duck under Craig so your lines don’t get tangled.”
I did as I was told.
“That’s it,” he encouraged. You’re doing fine.”
By the time I brought the fish close enough for Tom to snag, my muscles felt like linguini. Craig snapped a photo before we released him.
“Nice fish,” the two remarked.
In the days that followed, Rowland had us catching redfish among the mangrove; permit out on the flats and shark in rush-infested estuaries. Nights we spent feasting on grouper and snow crab, chimmey cakes and key lime pie. We listened to live music in the bars on Duval Street, watched spectacular sunsets on the pier. We talked about our wives, our kids, our work — and getting older.
We drove back up the coast, smug as two high school buddies whose team had just won the big game. Craig’s flight was scheduled to depart before mine from a different part of the terminal.
“Glad you came?” he asked.
“Hell yes,” I replied.
“Let’s do this again next year — this time on Tampa Bay.”
“Absolutely,” I agreed, this time without hesitation.
After we’d said good-bye, I found my gate and sank into one of the seats. A little girl sitting opposite looked up at her Grandma and then at me.
“You’ve been fishing,” she said.
“Yes,” I replied. “How did you know?”
“That expression on your face,” she said. “It’s the same one Grandpa has on his. He went fishing while Grandma and I went to Disney. He’s over there,” she added, pointing in the direction of the magazine stand.
Glancing up, it was easy to identify her grandpa. He was gray-haired and sunburned. But it was the fish-eating grin on his face that gave him away.
— Frank Kelly, Cortland