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At holidays, take a tip from a gift to Sinatra

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 8:29 AM EST, Sun December 8, 2013
Frank Sinatra crouches to kiss his daughter Nancy on a train platform around 1942.
Frank Sinatra crouches to kiss his daughter Nancy on a train platform around 1942.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: In 1940's, Jimmy Van Heusen, Phil Silvers gave personal gift to Frank Sinatra
  • He says it was song "Nancy With the Laughing Face" for Sinatra's daughter. He prized it
  • Greene: Mulling a good holiday gift? Consider homemade: letters, a photo album
  • Greene: Nancy Sinatra said her dad moved by gift his whole life. The best gifts are like that

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- Attention, holiday shoppers: Put away your wallets and credit cards.

If you're looking for a gift that will please someone close to you, there's one that won't cost you a cent, and that you won't find on any store shelf.

This thought occurred the other day when, on a visit to the west coast of Florida, I was walking through a crowded outdoor mall and the familiar voice of Frank Sinatra wafted out of the loudspeaker system:

"If I don't see her each day I miss her. . . ." I recognized the song immediately.

"Believe me, I've got a case,

"On Nancy, with the laughing face. . . ."

It's one of the songs Sinatra cherished most.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

And what does that have to do with the most meaningful present you can give to a loved one this holiday season?

There's a story behind the song: a story with a lesson.

In the early 1940s, when Sinatra was a relatively young man, he and his wife were having a birthday party for their firstborn child, Nancy. Among the invited guests were two good friends of Sinatra: the wonderful musical composer Jimmy Van Heusen, and the brilliant comedic actor Phil Silvers.

Van Heusen and Silvers wanted to bring a gift. But what could they purchase that Sinatra himself could not provide for his daughter?

What the two men did was revise a song they'd been working on. Van Heusen had written the melody; Silvers was the writer of the lyrics. (He would go on to immense fame in the 1950s playing Army Sgt. Ernest Bilko on CBS television, but his talents extended to many fields.)

Their song, in an early version, had featured the words "Bessie, with the laughing face," referring to the wife of a colleague. Now they worked some more on it, and fashioned the lyrics for Sinatra's young daughter.

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They played and sang it at the birthday party. Sinatra adored it; by some accounts, he was so moved by the gesture from his friends that he began to cry. Talk about a gift for the man who has everything: What are you going to give to Frank Sinatra that he will remember? A tie? A car? A bottle of liquor? He needed nothing.

But that song, and the effort his two friends had put into it, touched him so deeply that, until his dying day, it signified something achingly personal to him.

And now it's the holiday season. We've all read about the mobs of people at door-buster sales, the fights in the aisles of stores. Yet there is a way that each of us, if we are willing to invest the hours, can come up with a gift that will mean more than any flat-screen television or video game.

If you're good with words, write the best and longest letter you've ever written to a family member who maybe doesn't know just what he or she means to you. That letter will be kept, and treasured, long after gifts bought in a store have worn out or been thrown away.

If you're artistic, paint a picture with a special significance that the person you love will understand.

If you're the organized type, gather family photos from over the years, select them carefully, and put them together in an album that will mean everything to the person who receives it.

If you're musical ... well, do for the person you care about what Phil Silvers and Jimmy Van Heusen did for Frank Sinatra and his family.

Will the effort be time-consuming? Yes, and that's the point. It will certainly be time better spent than standing in line for hours before some big-box store opens its doors for midnight bargains.

Because I'd heard about the Sinatra story for so many years, I called his younger daughter Tina the other afternoon to ask her about its veracity -- and its meaning to her family.

"All of it is true," she said.

She said that her dad, Silvers and Van Heusen were dear buddies who loved to spend time together: "There would be New Year's Eve parties where they'd set up a stage, and play charades games. Everyone had to participate. They just liked being around each other."

When the two men presented the song at the birthday party, she said, "It was done out of pure friendship." Her father and her mother -- whose name was also Nancy -- couldn't have been more moved by the personal nature of the gift. Tina had not yet been born, but the reason she is certain of this, she said, is that her dad talked about it, from time to time, for the rest of his life.

And for him, the song -- and the memories of his friends who wrote it -- never diminished in emotional power. She recalled one time in Paris when her dad was in a brittle mood over some things that were going on in his life. He was angry and irritable; at a concert, as he worked his way through his song list, his agitation was evident to everyone who knew him.

But then he got to "Nancy (with the Laughing Face)".

"His entire physicality changed," Tina said. 'He relaxed. He calmed down. The gentleness of the song, and the meaning of the story behind it, did that to him. You could see it. He went from being tense and on edge to being like an at-ease sergeant."

The gift from his buddies did that for him, all those years later.

The best gifts are like that.

Here's hoping you'll find the right one.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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