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When my daughter, Lauren, was 14 months old she got cranky and didn't want to eat. The doctor diagnosed an ear infection and gave us antibiotics. Two days later Laura died in her sleep. My husband, David, and I were devastated.
It turned out that Lauren had a rare metabolic disorder that prevents the liver from breaking down fat. We had had no idea -- she had always seemed healthy.
That first Christmas without her was hard, but our family and church provided us with strength. The next Christmas, in 2006, my mother-in-law gave me an etched-glass ornament with Lauren's name and dates of birth and death on it. It's beautiful, but the best thing is that it's tangible. I can proudly display it because I want people to ask about my daughter; I want to talk about her. That's what keeps her memory alive.
Since then, Lauren ornaments have become a tradition -- we now have six. They're always up on our mantel, not just at Christmas, for anyone who comes into our home to see.
-- Nicole C. Young, 32, Decatur, Georgia
When I was 19, in 2001, I was both excited and anxious about starting at the U.S. Naval Academy. Parents often attend Induction Day, but my mom couldn't afford the plane ticket. Before I left she hugged me and handed me an envelope; then I boarded the plane alone.
After takeoff I opened Mom's letter and read how proud she was of me. "Maita [her pet name for me], you are bound for greatness," she wrote. My mother had sacrificed so much throughout my childhood, and thanks to her love I felt prepared to take on any challenge.
To my surprise there was also an antique ring in the envelope. The ring had been passed down to my mom by her own stepmother when she began her journey as a woman. It's platinum with a square face and a diamond in the middle. As a young adult, I knew this gift represented my mom's recognition that I was growing up.
I've carried my mother's unconditional love and strength in my heart and on my finger through four years at the Academy and two combat tours in Iraq as a Marine officer. The ring reminds me of the sacrifices my mom made for her children. I think of that as I serve to keep this country safe and look forward to the day when I can pass this heirloom along to a daughter of my own.
-- 1st Lt. Maia Molina-Schaefer, 27, Al Asad Air Base, Iraq
Riding horses has always been a big part of my life. Ironically, the man I married was allergic to them. After riding I'd have to take off my clothes in the basement, then dash upstairs to shower.
My daughter, Kaylin, was also allergic to horses as a small child but, like me, she loved them. Luckily her allergies cleared up enough that she could ride comfortably. It was something we really enjoyed together.
In 2005, after 17 years of marriage, my husband and I decided to get a divorce. Shortly before our final court date I learned I had stage III breast cancer. I was 38 years old, divorced, and fighting for my life.
Over the next two years I had a double mastectomy, 11 other surgeries for infections, 16 rounds of chemotherapy, and six weeks of daily radiation. When you're getting chemo your white blood cell count is low and you don't heal normally. But I insisted on riding with my daughter. On one of our rides I got thrown from my horse, and I hung on so hard I ripped all the skin off my hands. In agony I looked at Kaylin and said, "I can't do this," and I wasn't just talking about riding.
Then for Christmas 2006, Kaylin -- who was 12 -- did something that said "You are going to do this, Mom." She called my parents and siblings to ask them to chip in for a special gift. When I came downstairs Christmas morning, there was a beautiful Western saddle sitting under the tree. I was blown away.
Now that I'm in complete remission, my life and passions have been restored in many ways. And about a year ago I was finally able to take that beautiful saddle, put it on our family horse, and ride again.
-- Lauren Miller, 42, Highlands Ranch, Colorado
I grew up in Massachusetts, and live for the Boston Red Sox. I even have a team tattoo. My husband, Adam, loves that he can ask "How'd the Sox do?" and I can always give him the recap. Sometimes he asks from very far away: He is in the Army, and in our 13-year marriage he's been deployed seven times.
I should be used to it by now, but the holidays are still hard for me. In 2007 Adam was in Iraq. He called Christmas morning to hear our son, Addison, opening his presents. I put on a brave face for Addison, but it still tore me apart that Adam wasn't with us.
A few days later a manila envelope arrived with my name on it. I opened it and pulled out a tiny baggy and thought, "What the heck is this?" Then I read the letter that came with it. Adam had arranged to have dirt from the Sox infield sent to me. Amazing! I own a piece of Fenway.
That simple act from thousands of miles away made me realize how much Adam really understands me: He knows that dirt from Fenway Park means more to me than any fancy clothes or jewelry ever could. I cherish that dirt, but this Christmas I'm getting an even better gift: Adam will be home -- and that's really all I want.
-- Erin Nash, 35, Pooler, Georgia
Even as a child I liked adventure. So after graduating from college, in 1994, I wanted to see the world. Bryan, the man who would become my husband, also had the travel bug, and we took off together. Over the years we went to Guatemala, Colombia, Thailand, and the Philippines. We saw amazing things -- a red lake with flamingos in Bolivia, the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Mom and Dad were supportive but also worried, and always showed their concern with a reminder to "be safe" when I called every few weeks to check in with them.
My mom had taken up quilting when I took up traveling. So when I was home for Christmas in 1999, she surprised me with a breathtaking quilt she'd made. The pattern, aptly, is called Around the World. There was a lot of crying and hugging and kissing. When Mom shyly said, "It took thousands of hours to make," I knew that this was truly a labor of love. While I'd been abroad, she was stitching all of her motherly love and concern into the fabric of my quilt.
-- Jen Reeder, 37, Denver, Colorado
I learned to water-ski at the age of 32. Charlie, my boyfriend, was a great skier and took on the task of teaching me. I wasn't very athletic, but I would've done anything to be near this guy. I was scared and I took some spectacular falls, but Charlie was patient.
By 1991 Charlie and I were engaged and had just bought a house, so we knew it would be a lean Christmas. But after opening the stocking stuffers we'd bought each other, Charlie said, "There's one more thing." He reached around the sofa and brought out this custom-made water ski. It was very sleek and very purple.
"Now I know he's in it for keeps!" I thought. He bought me a ski, and that meant more than the house or the ring. It made me more confident, and soon I started to love waterskiing. It's the closest you can come to flying: The wind, the spray, the freedom -- there's nothing like it.
In September 2008 Hurricane Ike devastated our area. We lost a lot, but when I realized my ski was gone I sobbed like a baby. I knew it was stupid to cry over a ski, but it just meant that much to me.
-- Dayna Steele Justiz, 50, Seabrook, Texas
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December/January 2010.