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Price-less gifts brought home from deployments

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By LISA SMITH MOLINARI \ themeatandpotatoesoflife.com

I have a drawer at home filled with loving gifts from my husband, Francis. They are things he picked up while on military travel or deployments during his 28 years in the Navy. He would arrive home, and no matter how travel-weary he was, he’d gather up our family and give each of us a memento of his trip.

What were these precious items that Francis so thoughtfully picked out for us while he was away? Czecho-slovakian crystal, you ask? No. Italian leather goods? Naw. Japanese pearls? Nope. Mexican silver? Huh uh. Chinese silk? Negative. African art? Well, yes, if you count those bongos we had to throw away because they smelled like rotten animal hide, and those clay masks that scared the bejesus out of the kids.

While I must admit that Francis did give me a lovely set of enameled jewelry from an airport in Kuwait, a suitcase full of Polish pottery after a trip to Warsaw, a bottle of pisco from Chile that could sprout hair on your chest, and Persian rugs that put us deeply in debt, the most common souvenir Francis brought home from his trips were more economical items.

And by economical, I mean free.

You see, that drawer of gifts from Francis is actually in our bathroom. It’s filled with hotel soap, mini shampoos, tiny bottles of lotion, shower caps, sewing kits and shoe mitts. He also brought us consumables like hotel teabags and airline snacks — mostly pretzels or cookies, because he couldn’t resist the peanuts.

When the kids were little, Francis’ thoughtfulness was charming. Sometimes he’d put the hotel and airline freebees in trinket boxes he’d buy cheap from street vendors. Other times, he’d just use the vomit bags from the airplane seat backs, which were the perfect size. When the kids would open their bags or boxes, they would squeal with delight. Lilly would use the tiny bottles and soaps to play house with her American Girl doll. The sewing kits went to Anna, who was obsessed with fashion design from an early age. And Hayden got airline snacks, which he was only too happy to rip open and consume on the spot.

But as the kids grew older, the novelty wore off.

“Another trinket box?” Anna would complain.

“These cookies are stale,” Hayden would comment.

“Here’s more soap and shampoo, Mom,” Lilly would say, handing it all over to me for the bathroom drawer.

Although I sometimes dreamed of Francis coming home with an Italian leather handbag or an exotic piece of Asian art, I couldn’t deny that the free stuff came in quite handy. We never worried about running out of lotion or toothpaste. And when guests came to visit, I would make them a hospitality basket and place it beside their bed. Nothing says class like funky Korean teabags and a shoe horn from Holiday Inn Express!

In fact, I received so many hotel-sized toiletries from Francis over the years, I became quite the connoisseur, which is a fancy way of saying that I developed a strange case of OCD. I would sort the items in the drawer, putting only the best quality matched sets out for guests, and squirreling the rest away. I couldn’t wait for someone to forget a toothbrush or ask for lotion so that I could open my drawer and solve their problem.

Finally, after my drawerful PCS’d with us twice, I knew I needed to dial back my hotel-toiletry obsession. Our church was doing its annual drive for items for the homeless, so I donated the whole lot, cold turkey.

The drawer is full again, because even though Francis can afford to buy me nice souvenirs, giving hotel freebies has become our tradition. Ever since Francis transitioned from the military to the corporate world, he stays at better hotels with cooler stuff to swipe. When Francis went to Boston last month, I got mango ginger tea bags and a tiny loofa sponge. Not too shabby.

Francis’ travel gifts may not have a price tag, but the way I see it, the luxury of having a shower cap when you need one is truly priceless.