Unexpected Gift, Unexpected Time

July 24, 2019 Updated: July 24, 2019

In the movie “Finding Forrester,” a reclusive novelist gives this tip to his young protégée: “The key to a woman’s heart is an unexpected gift at an unexpected time.”

Now there’s a piece of worthy advice—and not just applicable to women.

When my 40th birthday was approaching, my wife asked me what I wanted. “A surprise party,” I replied. 

Throwing a surprise party presents obvious difficulties when the recipient requests such an event, but Kris found a way. Around noon on my birthday she and the three kids marched into the bookstore we owned on Main Street and presented me with a miniature cake. They sang Happy Birthday, I blew out the single candle, and thanked them. I figured that was my surprise.

I was wrong.

As I was closing the shop, Kris and crew pulled up on the street outside. In the car behind her were my sister, brother-in-law, and their two little ones. “Hop in,” Kris said, and whisked us off to McDonald’s, which is where you dine when money is scarce as a desert rain and you have little ones in tow. I enjoyed visiting with my sister and her husband, thanked everyone for the surprise dinner, and anticipated an uneventful evening at home. 

Wrong again.

These two surprises were feints. When we pulled into the driveway of our bed-and-breakfast, I was stunned to find the parking lot and the lot of the business next door jammed with cars. Inside the house were some 30 friends and family members, all ready for a party. It was an unforgettable birthday.

Family celebration or a garden party
A surprise often makes for cherished memories.

Unexpected gift, unexpected time.

In early September of the following year, my mother died. She was not only Mom, but a best friend, a confidante to whom I spoke weekly by phone, a woman who had never wavered in her love and support for me. Her passing left me bereft, slogging through the days like a man in chains. 

About six weeks later, another couple asked Kris and me to supper, I assumed out of sympathy for my loss. We arrived at the appointed time to find a long table laden with delicacies. “We invited a few other people,” Julie told us as she ushered us into the living room. 

Soon these guests, all of whom I knew, were streaming through the front door. Several of them gave me strange looks as they entered the house. Some of them, I was certain, had little connection with our hosts. At one point, I slipped into a hallway and asked my friend Wanda, “Why are we here?” 

“I don’t know, Jeff,” Wanda said. “Why are we here?”

This weird answer chilled me. By the time Julie summoned everyone into the living room, my stomach had twisted into one enormous knot. Kris and I were clearly the center of attention. Was this some sort of intervention? Had I run naked down Main Street while sleeping? Had I unknowingly broken some social code?

Now, a step back: earlier that month, several friends had encouraged me to go to the art gallery on Main Street and view a painting of our bed and breakfast by Asheville artist Ann Vasilik. Eventually, I viewed the painting—I had no idea our B&B had attracted an artist’s brush—and the unusual angle Vasilik had chosen, exposing the ramshackle soul of our old house, intrigued me. I also viewed the price tag, shook my head, and walked back across the street.

That painting was the purpose of the party. Julie carried it from the next room, held it high, and spoke some words I could scarcely comprehend. All those people, some with a good deal of money, some poor as the proverbial church mice, had chipped in and bought the painting for us. To this day, it hangs in the home where I live, with the names of the donors attached to the back. 

Unexpected gift, unexpected time.

These surprises were grand gestures, to be sure, but our gifts to loved ones and friends can be as small as a bouquet of flowers to a wife, a letter of love and appreciation to a parent, an ice cream treat to a child. Such simple presents can brighten the day, bring a smile, spark romance, and make a memory. 

So often we become caught up in the frantic race of day-to-day life that we forget the power of the gift. A dozen roses to a woman on Valentine’s Day is a nice gesture but with little kick, whereas this same bouquet delivered in the middle of July on no special occasion might rattle the Richter scale of emotions. To leave a letter on your husband’s pillow telling him of your love and what his hard work means to the family may warm a discouraged heart. To say to your 10-year-old after supper, “Let’s saddle up, Johnny,” and drive him without notice to the bowling alley or a movie will provide him with a memory he will long cherish. That young woman in your office expects a present at Christmas—a bonus, a gift card—but you can make her day in April with some comparable offering.

Unexpected gifts, unexpected times.

We can even give such gifts to ourselves. One catch: Only those with “eyes to see and ears to hear” can unwrap these presents. In Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” a young woman who has died is permitted to revisit one day in her life. She picks her 12th birthday, and is soon shocked and saddened by the blindness of human beings to the miracles of ordinary life. At one point she addresses the Stage Manager:

Emily: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it … every, every minute?”

Stage Manager: “No. Saints and poets maybe … they do some.”

Few of us are saints and poets, and none of us can realize life every minute, but sometimes a happy accident or force of will can remove us from the trenches of the daily grind, open our senses to the mysteries and magic of the world, and allow us respite from our cares and the refreshment of our souls. 

An example: You’ve woken from a night of restless sleep and terrible dreams. You’re financially strapped, the bills are piling up, and you’re just trying to feed the kids and keep a roof over their heads. Worried sick, you sit on the back deck of your home with a cup of coffee. Wearily, you close your eyes, open them, and absorb your surroundings. For just that moment, your anxieties disappear, and along with your coffee, you sip in the morning’s pleasures: blue skies, cool air, a slight breeze, and birdsong. 

Unexpected gift, unexpected time.

A key to the heart.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, North Carolina. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Virginia. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.

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