THE PERFECT GIFT

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In 1993 my father stepped off the airplane carrying an oversized wrapped birthday present. My husband Rob loaded it into the back of the car and noted how heavy it felt.

“That’s the perfect gift,” my father had said proudly. “The perfect gift.”

I was expecting my second child in a few months and imagined the box contained a massaging pad for my sore back.

The next day after dinner and cake I opened my presents. Rob gave me a pair of Birkenstock sandals. “See, you can adjust the straps as your feet get wider.” Obviously the fact that I had removed the laces from my sneakers had not gone unnoticed.

Our three-year-old son Jackson kept asking when he would get his present. Rob unsuccessfully tried explain that it was his mother’s birthday and there weren’t any presents for him. Jackson thrust his head in my large lap and sobbed.

My father, always eager to keep the fun moving, had the answer. “Hey Jack,” he said, gently tapping his shoulder. “Wait till she opens my present. You can share it with her.”

Realizing this was his best shot at a gift, Jackson stopped crying.

“This is really for everyone,” my father proclaimed as he rested the box at our feet.

Jackson and I unwrapped it together and stared at the contents, which included four heavy red balls and four green balls and one tiny white ball.

“Oh, it’s a bocce ball set,” Rob exclaimed. Rob, who is of Italian descent, is always approving of anything made in Italy.

“That’s right!” Dad said. “Isn’t this the perfect gift?” he said again. He suggested we go play.

“Right this minute?” I asked, feeling weary at the thought of it.

This prompted my father to dive into our exploits of croquet from when I was a child. Our lawn in Illinois had been large and flat and covered in an even bed of perfect grass. The court had been regulation and my father always won.

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Our current apartment was in a house that faced the Palisades and the terrain slanted downhill towards the Hudson River. The yard was bumpy and filled with plantains and crabgrass. My father explained that unlike croquet, bocce could be played on any surface. We paired off and played. As the shiny wooden balls bounced along our yard my father rewrote the rules of bocce.

“You see,” he said, pointing as a ball hit a divot and bounced off course. “That’s just part of the game now.” After we had finished he said, “You’ll play this for years to come.”

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A few years later we moved to an apartment in a small neighboring city and sold off all our lawn items except the bocce ball set which we stored inside an opaque plastic box. A few years after that we bought our first house which was on a lake in Putnam County. The house sits fifty feet above the water and the yard snakes down to the dock along a foot path that runs through a wooded lot. A friend remarked during our housewarming party, “This isn’t the kind of yard you could ever play anything on.”

Once when my father was visiting he pointed out the only level strip of land in the terraced yard and we bandied about putting in a skinny bocce court. In the end we abandoned the idea because of cost and size.

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The summer before our daughter left for college she held a yard sale. She was told she could keep all the proceeds from the sale for herself in exchange for doing all the work involved. As she gathered up our junk she discovered the bocce set under the basement steps.

“What about these?” she asked, peering down at the dusty balls.

My father, who had been dead for almost four years, wouldn’t have known the difference and we hadn’t played with them since before my daughter was born. I picked up one of the heavy balls and wiped away a thick layer of dust with the edge of my t-shirt. I tried to picture all the gifts my father had ever given me but could only remember this one. The weight of the ball transported me back to that birthday and how pleased he had been with his gift. I admired the red wood that still contrasted against the patterned white lines circling around the ball and saw for the first time how utterly beautiful the balls were.

“No,” I said, returning the ball with the rest. “I want them.”

“But you never use them,” she argued mildly.

“Well your father and I plan to start playing just as soon as you leave for school.”

“Really?” she asked.

“Really,” I said.

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SATAN ZERO, US ONE

ImageThirteen years ago this week we moved into our lake house. About three years into ownership I decided the house had been a huge mistake. The complaints were long and varied: it was small, there was no place inside for the children to entertain friends, my daughter’s bedroom was on the first floor facing the street, there was no garage, and the yard…well let’s just say we had nicknamed it Satan’s lawn.

That early lawn was actually a combination of crabgrass and plantains posing as grass. The front lawn sits three feet above the front entrance and is held back by an ugly cement block retaining wall. The backyard drops down one hundred and fifty feet to the dock. The lawn mower had to be lifted by two people section by section to keep the weeds at bay. So when we heaved the mower to the lower yard it tended to stay there. Mowers that are left out in the rain don’t last very long.

         “Help me move the mower.”

         “Ask my father.”

          “His back hurts.”

           “So does mine.”

I am not mechanically inclined. My husband thinks he is, which is interesting since we break lawnmowers with reckless abandon.  He explains it this way.

            “Just because someone is mechanically inclined doesn’t mean they understand all machines. I never studied small engines.”

            “Oh.”

We have owned (no exaggeration) nine lawnmowers. We average about one a year. This year we had two repaired. Having two mowers has cut down on the hauling. After thirteen years there are only two small sections of yard remaining that ever get mowed, yet we need two mowers.

Another big lawn issue is tree maintenance. Several years ago a two hundred year old maple tree silently pulled from the ground and landed in the lake, smashing the docks and rowboat in the process. Nobody heard or saw it fall except a neighbor who came over to inspect the damage.

“Oh, that was what I heard last night,” she said, as we stared fifty feet out into the water searching for the end of the tree.

Numerous tree men were called in to bid on the job.

            “That’s a doozy, alright.”

            “How much?”

            “Well seeing that it’s in the water… and the street is two hundred feet up, I’d say…seven thousand.”

            Next.

            “Have you ever thought about moving?”

The man we hired only charged two thousand dollars and brilliantly used a winch that he ran through other trees, pulling the fallen tree out of the lake by a truck up on the street. Then of course we had to hire two men to chop up the tree into fireplace size logs. We could have a fire every day for a decade and still have wood left over.

One of the early draws of the lake house was that we were planning to throw a lot of parties. I don’t know why we thought this since we never threw many parties before buying the house. For our daughter’s high school graduation she wanted a big party. We invited seventy-five people and needed the use of the whole yard, but the whole yard wasn’t available. A month before the graduation party I sat on the steps in the middle yard and cried.

            “How are were ever going to fix this?” I sobbed, pointing at the remains of a giant, rotten railroad tie sandbox. (That I had to have, eleven years prior.)

            “Don’t worry mama,” my son said. “I’ll fix it.”

            I stared blankly at this twenty-one year old who had feigned illness to get out of any and all yard work for his entire life. “You? How?”

            He shrugged. “This is nothing.”

One month and hundreds of dollars in plants and supplies afterward (which included a power saw with a burned out motor) we had a Japanese garden complete with a floating wooden walkway that he built from discarded lumber. Two summers later, I still can’t believe he pulled that off. It proved to me that miracles can happen.ImageImage

            In the years of ownership and with the help of various handy men we have also built tiered garden beds, erected three different types of fences, connected the upper and lower decks with a staircase, installed an interlocking brick walkway and patio, dug a flagstone walkway, erected a stone wall, designed and built a solitary reading deck, rebuilt the dock three times, installed two fountains and an outdoor shower, transplanted dozens of perennials in the hope that one day, the yard would be care free or at the very least easy to maintain. The other hope was that our marriage would last. With every winter season I never know what disaster lurks for the following spring. I don’t know why we stayed but I have only recently stopped wanting to sell it.

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