Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Most Memorable Gift

My seventeenth summer was, in many ways, a miserable one.

I spent ten weeks of that summer taking a full year of accelerated high school chemistry at the local public school. Several of my classmates from my Catholic girls' school had started with me, but dropped out in favor of days at the beach and pleasure reading after an intense first week of class.

I had no choice but to persevere: at my school, chemistry class conflicted with journalism, my planned college major. I had to stay in this summer scientific marathon, enduring exams every day, midterms at every two weeks, cramming material that didn't come easy to me, struggling through experiments (including splashing sulfuric acid on my face when I dropped a vial on the desk and having the teacher hold my face under a running faucet, exacerbating my already embarrassing bad hair day).

But there was a bright light in the midst of this adolescent misery: time with my mother. Every day after picking me up from class and before I delved into mounds of homework, we would stop at the local supermarket ice cream counter to get fountain Cokes to go and then would sit in her car in the store's parking lot, the windows down, sprawling on the front bench seat, sipping our Cokes and talking for an hour. It was a blessed respite, a time I remember warmly and with love more than half a century later.

When you think back on your life, do you find yourself having the sweetest memories not of lavish gifts or fancy vacations but of moments, savored, ordinary moments with a loved one who gave you the greatest gift of all -- the gift of his or her time and attention?

My husband Bob treasures memories of times with his grandparents, sitting at the dining room table playing cards hour after hour. What endures is that how much they enjoyed each other's company and how happily he fit in, feeling warm comfort that makes him smile all these years later. He doesn't remember what was said, but that they were there together.

Often, it really doesn't matter what is said, but what one feels.

My maternal grandfather, a Kansas farmer, was a man of few words, famously taciturn. But when he would hand me a bucket with a quick smile, I knew it was our time together. We would trudge out to his mile-long strawberry patch to pick berries, often in silence but in a joint effort that somehow felt wonderfully intimate. From time to time, he would find a particularly choice berry and silently, but with a twinkle in his eyes offer it to me as an instant treat. And I felt dearly loved.

There were times when my father would invite me along on his errands with a food enticement: "Hey, Baby, want to go get tacos and root beer?" Tacos and root beer! My sudden joy was tempered with caution. My eyes would narrow.

"We're not going to the Dow Radio store, are we?"

My father would smile. "Well, who can say? But it would be nice to get out and about together, don't you think?"

My antipathy for Dow Radio -- a huge warehouse of small, musty, totally boring electronics parts -- would fade as I thought of spending time with my father when he was, for the moment, sober and in a good mood.

And those times of sitting together at the taco place, next door to Dow Radio, talking and laughing, are the moments with him that stand out all these years later.

And those Saturdays with Aunt Molly! The memory of these makes me smile. My father's sister was a single career woman, a professional writer, a woman I idolized all my life. Those Saturdays with her live on as treasured memories. We had a routine and, yes, it involved food -- always turkey sandwiches at a very cool sit down restaurant near Vroman's, our favorite bookstore where we spent hours exploring each week. But what I remember most was the joy of feeling special, blessed with her company. It was a day out for just the two of us, having ordinary conversations, going to the same stores and the same restaurant every week, sharing such pleasure in our Saturday routine.

It makes me wonder what gifts of time might mean the most to the next generation in our family. What will matter, years from now, to my own niece Maggie, now only six years old?

Will she think back and remember our hours of playing princess games -- and my trying to teach her lessons in friendship in the voice of a loyal but truculent princess friend who insists that real friends don't just ask for favors but show concern and caring for each other? (And I smiled as I watched her immediately turn to her mother, who had complained of a headache, and ask how she was feeling.) Will Maggie remember the lessons? Or simply that we sat together, hour after hour, at the kitchen table or the family room floor of her L.A. home playing together? Or will she remember the times cooking holiday meals together, paying close attention as I made my special stuffing "so I can keep making that dressing after you're dead."

After I have left this world, maybe what will matter most to her was just that we shared time together -- cooking, tasting, laughing and pretending to be princesses.

It's enough to give one pause about the modern tendency to substitute money or gifts for time. Time spent with those you love is much more important than money spent.

There simply is no substitute in showing one's love to another than simply being there, being present, giving a gift that that costs nothing but has enduring value in how it makes another feel -- at the moment and always.


  1. Totally agree. The things that stand out the most for me were the gifts that cost little or nothing. Sunday rides with the family and always dinner every night together where we shared our day. You can't buy those memories.

  2. I couldn't agree with you more, Kathy. It worries me -- the amount of time that kids spend on their electronic devices, thinking they are communicating and doing something. I have boatloads of memories with my grandma, baking mostly, and picking fruits and veggies in their farm garden; playing the Barbie Doll game with my dad (who was appropriately named "Ken") and hanging out making crafty things with my mom. Mud pies with the cousins, long beach conversations, water play, cards on the porch. They are all people things. And they were all free. And all the best.

  3. I fear for so many children growing up today. They have the most connectivity of any generation, yet they don't know a thing about connection. I remember long drives with my grandparents. My father is at the wheel of the car while my brother and grandfather sit beside him. Crammed in the backseat are my mother, sister, grandmother, and I. I listened to my grandmother's stories, played with the many diamond rings on her hands, and often fell asleep against her very ample breast.

  4. Beautiful post. I try to spend as much time as possible with members of my family and extended family NOW, while they are present. And I found that it upset me greatly, recently, when my dad was so ill and then passed away, to hear some people say - if I had known he was so sick, I would have come to see him. Well, that's a bit too late. Why not visit while he could enjoy it?

  5. My 25 year old daughter wants to be independent but can't afford it with a small salary. She is a great, caring person. I feel her pain as she wants to grow up and be responsible for herself. Please pray for her.