Gladys Fristrom and her husband did not have children, so years ago they came up with an idea to make Christmas special for the children of others.
Each year, they would pick out several kids — the offspring of a neighbor, a relative or close friends — and shower each of them with about 25 small presents.
Now, decades later, Fristrom, 89, is widowed and lives alone in Seaford. She has almost no family left and is having a rough Christmas season. She fractured her back this year, spent five weeks in a hospital and went through months of physical rehabilitation.
So she was delighted and overwhelmed when a box arrived recently in the mail — and inside were 25 presents.
It was from the wife of her late nephew, Douglas Nilsen, one of the kids Fristrom treated to gifts long ago.
“Can you imagine, 60 years ago I did that?” Fristrom said in an interview at her home. “It was a good idea that I did — I didn’t realize it at the time.”
“I’m excited to open these 25 gifts,” she added. The surprise delivery “made me feel very good, made me feel like I did something.”
Linda Nilsen, 67, who lives in Redding, California, said Fristrom had included her and her husband’s two children in the 25-present tradition. Nilsen later extended the ritual’s reach by giving 25 presents each year to her two grandchildren.
This year, she decided, it was time to bestow the presents on Fristrom herself.
“I just remember what fantastic memories we had” when the gifts from Fristrom arrived, Nilsen said. “She needs to get some of that back. She’s an inspiration to me.”
The presents were so memorable for the Nilsens’ children, now in their 30s, that they still talk about it, Nilsen said.
The gifts Fristrom gave were never anything major or expensive — toy trucks, baseball gloves, coloring books, dolls — but it was the sensation of having 25 presents to open that captivated the kids, Nilsen said.
“They were absolute magic. They just could not wait to open them,” Nilsen said. “They remember those as being one of their top gifts.”
Nilsen’s decision to send 25 presents to Fristrom is about a lot more than the recipient getting some jars of jam or other goodies, said Laura Montefusco, program director of Catholic Charities’ Massapequa Park Senior Center at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, where Fristrom goes most days.
Rather, it is a validation of her life — that she did good and had an effect on others, she said.
“Everyone needs validation in their lives, seniors especially, at this time of year,” Montefusco said. “Memories come like a flood, some good, some not so good.”
“It’s a Christmas story. Everyone wants to feel like they made an impact — ‘My life counted for something,’ ” she said.
Fristrom has the presents lined up in her living room and says she can’t wait to open them. She will do so Thursday — on Christmas Eve — when she has no plans and will be alone. On Christmas Day, she hopes to be with friends in Queens.
The temptation to open the presents has proved too great at times, she said, confessing, “I cheated and opened one.”
It was a jar of a gourmet peanut butter and cinnamon apple mix, sent from California with love.