In 1980, I began courting my wife, Martha. The 24 year-old me had longed for but never had a girlfriend; going steady was what other boys did in high school and college.

This column comes out 38 years later, to the day.

We met at a Christmas party, given by her lifelong friend Renee, someone I had met in Martha’s Vineyard soon after graduating from college. Martha was a beautiful 28-year-old art teacher, about to turn 29 and close to getting her master’s degree. I was a disheveled misfit living out of my red Toyota Corolla, sponging off my father in Boston (when we met), sanding and painting walls, and spending time in my college town of Amherst as a young entrepreneur publishing a phone directory (with yellow pages) for the students, selling coupon books and day-old roses at the campus center, while living with two female roommates who referred to me as “the guy that sometimes lives in our basement.”

When her friends asked; “What do you see in this man?” she would endearingly say “potential.” She liked me and I liked her; it was pretty simple.

To commemorate this momentous turn of events (my having a girlfriend!), I took a silver quarter from my coin collection, found a heavy spoon, and began to pound it on my belt-covered knee.

The quarter fit between the thumb and forefinger, the spoon hitting it at an angle that naturally rotated it, with the result a perfectly flattened 25-cent piece. A drill from my father’s workshop cut out the guts, with a rasp-file smoothing the inside, leaving the date 1964 intact on the inside wall of what I called “the friendship ring.” It took about 40 hours of pounding; the result was worth it.

We were too old for me to give her my high school ring and I was too poor to buy her one in a jewelry store. It was at least better than the one I had made earlier out of a dollar bill to celebrate our one-month anniversary; at the Christmas party I had placed an origami bird on the tree on my arrival and Martha asked the host who made it; an introduction ensued. That handshake would lead to our first date later that night. I would drive her home and we would stop at the IHOP for a four-hour breakfast on the way. It would end with me dropping her off at her apartment doorstep, with a sweet goodnight kiss that was the best early Christmas present ever, even to this day.

The quarter was also better than the twisted straw ring or the one from the tab of a soda can that had preceded the official “friendship ring.” It has become the quarter that keeps on giving.

Five years later, we would marry; she would move the ring from her right hand to her left, and I would make myself a matching quarter ring.

As we consider gifts this holiday season, it is without a doubt my most important possession, given from the heart and not the pocketbook.

The quarter that kept on giving has resulted in a 33-year marriage and three wonderful sons. It gives credence to the notion that the best things in life are free, or in this case 25 cents.

***

That Dec. 20 night, as we left the party, it was snowing heavily. A man in his car was stuck, tires spinning. I got out and pushed; a simple act of kindness. Thinking nothing of it, I was excited to get back in the car to continue talking with the girl (woman) I had met hours earlier.

The act itself wasn’t remarkable; what stood out to Martha was simply that I did it. It sealed the deal and she gave a quick “yes” to my invitation, as we approached the IHOP on Soldier’s Field Road in Brighton, that I buy us breakfast.

What we can all remember this holiday season, and throughout the year, is that it is not momentous acts of kindness, or the need to do big things that is important; it is how we define ourselves in doing the little things.

Happy holidays!

***

“In its original literal sense, “moral relativism” is simply moral complexity. That is, anyone who agrees that stealing a loaf of bread to feed one’s children in not the moral equivalent of, say, shoplifting a dress for the fun of it, is a relativist of sorts. But in recent years, conservatives bent on reinstating an essentially religious vocabulary of absolute good and evil as the only legitimate framework for discussing social values have redefined “relative” as “arbitrary.”

—Ellen Jan Willis, writer (1941-2006)