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Posted by on Dec 24, 2013 in Blog, Personal, Travel | 10 comments

The Best Gifts I Ever Received — a Blanket, a Cat, and a Silver Charm




What are the best gifts you’ve ever received?

Truth is, our most precious gifts are the things we often take for granted.  Things like good health, our family, and our friends.  These are priceless treasures, far more valuable than we realize — until they’re gone.

I’ve been blessed far beyond what I deserve.  I’ve enjoyed the unconditional love and support of my wife for nearly 23 years.  Two parents provided a solid foundation and the freedom and encouragement to become who I am.  Friends have done more for me than I can possibly repay.  Even people I’ve met and known for brief periods, often without knowing so, have done things that brought tears to my eyes.  Indeed, gifts are constantly coming our way.  Hopefully, you’ve been blessed as much as I have.

Yesterday’s article (CLICK HERE) made me think more about the best gifts I’ve ever received.  Please indulge me on this special occasion.  Allow me to share a few of these with you.  The three things I remember most are — a blanket, a cat, and a silver charm.



Christmas 1991 — My Aunt Debbie lives in New Orleans.  I don’t see her often, but she knows how special she is to me.  She is such a fun person to be with.  I wish I had more times to be with Aunt Debbie.

When Marieta and I were first married, Debbie met my new wife for the first time on Christmas Day.  I was surprised that she brought along a gift for us.  It was wrapped beautifully.  I was embarrassed by this, because I hadn’t brought a gift for her.  We weren’t used to exchanging gifts at Christmas.

We unwrapped the gift and discovered it was a blanket.  That seemed a bit odd.  Sure, the blanket was nice.  But why would Debbie go out and buy a blanket for us?

Turns out, Debbie had sewn the blanket herself.  She had spent countless hours weaving the stitches, back and forth, over and over, until the yarn ultimately came together, created a pattern, and became a full blanket.  Imagine the number of hours, days even, that the blanket took to create.

That blanket meant more than I could possibly express.  Marieta felt the same.  And we still have that blanket to this day.  It’s worn out know.  Faded by time.  Frayed at the fringes.  But it remains one of the most prized treasures and most meaningful gestures I’ve ever experienced.



Christmas 1986 — My other Aunt lives in Austin.  Her name is Rosemary Paone.

Many years ago, I went to her home on Christmas Day to spend time with family.  Rosemary has always been a huge animal lover.  All of her cats were strays.  She can’t stand to see an animal suffering.  I believe a genuine love for animals is one of the most defining of all human characteristics.  I think people who treat animals well are better people than those who don’t.

At the time, Rosemary had four cats living in her house.  No, she’s not a “cat lady.”  That’s because she goes out of here way to get some of them adopted.

When Christmas Day came around, Rosemary had one cat that was very different from the rest.  It was a ginger-colored tabby, about a year old.  This cat was special.  He had been found wandering in a parking lot, near a bunch of trash cans.  Not exactly a prize-winning pedigree.  During the entire time, he constantly communicated with everyone at the family gathering.  He loved being around people, especially me.  The cat wouldn’t leave me alone.

I love cats.  But at the time, I was single.  I worked nights.  I was the worst possible cat parent.

But some things one can’t resist.  Some things in life are just meant to be.

Rosemary offered me the cat for adoption, who became known as “Frankie.”  She encouraged me to try Frankie on a trial basis.  If things didn’t work out, I could always bring him back.  Of course, there was no chance of that happening.

Frankie and I stayed together for the next 17 years.  He became like a child to me.  Frankie was there every day and night as a devoted companion.  Anyone who thinks cats are aloof and way too independent, never met this one.  A few years later, when Marieta and I were married, she came to appreciate and love Frankie, too.  Just as much as me.

Frankie was a constant presence in our lives.  He gave us more joy than we can possibly express.  In 2004, Frankie passed away of old age, at 18.  We still miss him to this day.  But thanks to Rosemary, we still have wonderful memories.



Summer 1977 — This isn’t a Christmas story, but it illustrates the spirit of the season and the embodies the genuine act of giving.  I almost break down emotionally just thinking this extraordinary act of generosity.  It happened when I was still in high school.  I was 15-years-old.

My father gave me many gifts, perhaps nothing more important than a spirit of adventure.  He’s always loved traveling.

During the summertime, we used to ride the trains all over Mexico.  We went everywhere.  And I’m not talking the tourist resorts.  I’m not talking about beaches.  I’m talking about the heart of an impoverished country where Americans don’t often go.  And we always rode the Mexican National Train System (Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Mexico).

Back then, riding the Mexican trains were still somewhat dangerous.  Soldiers armed with machine guns called Federales rode in the front and back of the train, to prevent robberies.  It was a modern-day reincarnate of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”  The trains went into areas that were so isolated, bandits were a constant threat.  Before the Federales, they’d place an obstruction on the tracks to make the train stop, then jump on board and rob everyone.  Then, they’d ride off on horseback.  Seriously.

Of course, when you’re a teenage boy, you have no fear.  You don’t know any better.

The trains went for days at a time.  Mexico is a huge country, and the trains never moved faster than about 20 to 30 mph.  That meant the trips were ridiculously long.  But I guess that was the whole point, wasn’t it?  We weren’t headed anywhere  in particular.  We were going along for the ride, and the experience of a lifetime.

The train became a sort of moving hotel.  To me, it was a traveling circus.  There was a dining car.  A bar car.  Coach cars carried Mexican nationals.  I still remember it cost the equivalent of $5 to ride all the way from the Texas border to Mexico City.  The journey took two full days.  Mexicans would have cages with chickens and pigs riding with them on the train.

In between the train cars, there were platforms where you could open up the windows and stand there looking out into the open air.  This is where I spent most of my time.

Those train trips were a shocking experience.  Devastating in many ways.  Certainly eye opening.  If you ever thought you knew what poverty is like, you don’t.  The rail yards of Mexico attracted the most desperate people in the country.  People who had no where else to go.  Fathers.  Mothers.  And so many children.  They lived in abandoned rail cars which littered the landscape.  Metal hulls of old trains became makeshift homes for tens of thousands.  Up and down the rails of every single town and city were these desperately poor people.  Living in filth.  Hungry.  Sick.

It was perhaps the most moving experience of my life.

When the trains would stop, those desperate people approached.  They begged.  They were not lazy.  They were not dishonest.  They were just unfortunate enough to be born on the wrong side of a border.  Had things been a little different, had fates taken a different course, I could have been in their shoes, that is, if they had shoes.  And they could have been in mine.  I shall never forget the faces of those people, who despite the misery, were often smiling.

Yes, smiling.  

On those long train trips, you got to know the people around you.  You had to.  Of course, just about everyone was Mexican.  I spoke almost no Spanish (but you do learn quick when forced into situations).  Few of the Mexicans spoke English.

While standing upon the platform between trains, a Mexican boy came and stood with me.  We watched the scenery together.  We didn’t speak each other’s language.  But we didn’t need to.

The boy was about my age.  He has been sitting in the coach section of the train, which means he was probably traveling with his family.  His face was dirty.

Somehow, a conversation started.  I don’t remember what we discussed exactly.  We were just kids, riding on a train.  From different sides of the tracks.

Over the next day and a half, I guess you could say that we became friends.  I know how ridiculous that must sound.  But there was a sincerity about him combined with an insatiable curiosity that made him easy to get to know.

During the journey, I took my new friend into the bar car a few times.  I bought him those sugary Mexican Cokes, which taste so much better that what we drink in America.  The Coke burned your throat as you drank it down.  It was delicious.

I was sad the train trip would end.  Because I knew it was then that I would lose my friend.  As we rolled into the northern outskirts of Mexico City, then about to become the largest city in the world, the boy called me into the coach section of the train.  I went with him.  We were just moments away from him packing up his things, and leaving the train with his family.

We sat down together on a hard wooden seat.  The boy reached down and rolled up the leg of his pants.  Next, he untied a leather strap that was strung around a silver charm.  The silver charm was tied around his ankle, apparently a custom with Mexican people.

What he did next was beyond anything imaginable.

He took that leather band and that silver charm, and placed it into my hands.  He insisted that I have it.  The silver charm is an imprint of two hands pressed together, as in prayer.

Naturally, I declined this exemplary gesture.  There was no possible way I could accept such a priceless gift.  Not only did I not deserve this silver charm, the value of keepsake was far to great, especially for someone with his background.

Someone else riding on the train who was sitting behind us interceded in the conversation.  He told me in broken English that it’s a common custom for people in his part of the country to give these trinkets away, when the occasion calls.  I was told that to refuse this offering would be a grave insult.

But I couldn’t possibly accept it.

Yes, you must accept it — I was told.

I was also instructed in certain terms that at some point in the future, I had an obligation to pass on that silver charm to someone else.  It must be given to a person who meant something to me and who made a difference in my life.

Think of that amazing experience.  Try to conceive the possibilities of where this silver charm had been.  How many ankles had it been tied around?  How many decades back, centuries perhaps, did it go?  Years earlier, might this silver charm have been the possession of someone in Poncho Villa’s posse?  Or did it belong to an official in Benito Juarez’ cabinet?  Maybe it had been tied around the ankle of a descendant of the Aztecs.  Or maybe someone who fought at the Alamo.  Where had it been?  Where had it gone?  What hardships had it witnessed?  Just imagine the possibilities.

At some point in the future, I’ll write more about what happened to that silver charm.

And so in the end, now some 37 years later, I look back on that special gift given to me by a boy on a Mexican train as the most memorable token of generosity that I remember.  That silver charm, that enduring memory, and the lesson contained therein remains a priceless keepsake.

Merry Christmas Eve to everyone.






  1. you are a nice person, too bad we dont play against you, instead of those we encounter at the table.

  2. I fondly remember you betting that cat at Barge. What a great animal.

    • NOLAN REPLIES: Quick correction. That ginger cat you saw in 2003 (I think) playing poker at Binion’s Horseshoe was “Alex.” We adopted him from a shelter in Washington, DC about a year earlier. He was with Frankie the last year Frankie was alive. Today, Alex is still with us. He is now 12 years old. 🙂

      — Nolan

  3. OK – So who did you give the charm to?

  4. Can’t wait to hear more about the silver charm.

  5. Thanks Nolan for such a great story. I also am looking forward to hearing the rest of the story. I hope you know how much your writing means to all of us that read it.

  6. Beautiful stories as always. I definitely remember Frankie and was always so happy he found his home with you. Some pets touch us in way we can’t imagine. Merry Christmas to you and Marieta. Hope you have a healthy and prosperous 2014.

  7. Frankie was a special cat, more human than cat. He got a great home with some special people.
    Nolan, I have to mark you blog as must reading as you write so well.
    Have a safe and meaningful 2014.


  8. Merry Christmas to you Marieta and Alex,
    We enjoyed reading your most recent story. Rosemary and Deborah are very dear to me too. Debbie gave us a knitted throw cover years ago which we still use, especially now in our old age. And we just received a container full of sweets and cookies made by Rosie. Delicious. Her house is still full of cats. (Ours too).
    Love to you all,
    Uncle Jimmy, Aunt Darlene, Tuffy, and Abby.

  9. I was so touched when I read your blog. I had no idea that blanket meant so much to you both, however I have to tell you the reason I wanted to make that blanket. Nolan when you came into this world you were my first Nephew and I was so in love with you even though you lived so far away. I was so young and wanted to get you something but had no money. So I cut out a little jacket pattern out of paper sacks and Mother had some pink material. I cut out that jacket and sewed it together on Mothers sewing machine. I had never made anything before, so you can imagine what it looked like. We sent it to Jerry and Becky and they let you wear that little pink jacket. I was so proud of you and that little jacket. So when I heard that you had gotten married I wanted to make something for you and your new bride, hence the blanket for two. Merry Christmas to you both and I love you dearly.

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