Last week it was my birthday, and I was given the greatest gift of all time. David bought two Perception kayaks (best on consumer reports) and he arranged for us to spend a day paddling through the mangroves. For me, this gift was not about getting a new boat, even though owning two kayaks is a dream comes true. These boats are a symbol of something deeper – proof that I’m going to spend my life with someone who listens to and considers my dreams important. Every day, David does things to demonstrate his commitment to making me happy. His acts of love are deeply moving.
I’ve wanted to own two kayaks of this sort for over 20 years. Each and every time a car drove by with two kayaks perched on the roof my family had to endure my sighs and exclamations of desire. But no matter how much money we had (and we had plenty), or how often my ex said, “Yeah, we’ll have to get some of those someday,” it never happened.
For years I subscribed to canoe and kayak magazine. I also subscribed to Outside magazine, budget travel and a few other publications that represented my deepest desire for an active, adventurous life. The signs of my interest lay strewn around the house, and I would read the articles wistfully and share pictures and quotes with my husband as we lay in bed at night, openly sharing my hopes that we would someday create a life where our time and money could be balanced to include a combination of sporty adventure, nature and quiet contemplation as well as work hard and a nice home. When we got an offer on our business, I even made my husband promise our life would include recreational “toys” to bring us together as a family and get us out in nature. If fun and leisure wasn’t going to be a part of our future plans, I didn’t want to sell. We openly negotiated and agreed to spend 1% of our windfall (only 1% mind you – not like I was demanding more than was reasonable or affordable) on recreational “toys” for the family. But despite our agreement, I couldn’t get Mark to say yes to a boat no matter how many times I dragged him to see older, used boats on sale. I tried getting him to agree to a pontoon boat for only a few thousand dollars, and we looked at a used motor boat that the kids could ski behind. We had plenty of land to park a boat on. But for all that he said he’d love a boat, he just never could bring himself to pay for one. Over time, I gave up and allocated the 1% on animals and I spent my outdoor recreation time at the barn accepting that we were never going to live the sporty life we consistently talked of having one day as a couple.
I had given it my best effort. I once bought a used double kayak from a friend. I toted that boat from home to home for 8 years, keeping it clean and ready in hopes we might someday start using it, but we only took it out once on a camping trip. The boat was solid and big – too heavy for a woman to lift alone, and who wants to go kayaking in a double seater all by themselves? And even if I did want to use it with my son or something, I had no way to transport the heavy, long kayak. I bought some Styrofoam braces for the roof of my car, but tying it up that way didn’t work. The darn thing didn’t really fit in the back of a pickup either, even if I could convince Mark to loan me his truck, which was iffy since it was always filled with wood or landscaping supplies or whatever he was into. I complained about my inability to handle that boat all the time, reminding Mark how much I wanted to use the boat since we lived where the greatest kayaking river was a stone’s throw away. He kept saying that he’d love to go out with me, but he didn’t feel up to it because of his health (his hips or knees or back, or a sprained ankle, or headache, – whatever the current injury was. Sometimes it was stress, or his weight, or the fact that he really rather go to the mall. All I know is for ten years we talked about living a sporty life, but he just wasn’t interested enough to get all sweaty and messy. Eventually, I gave up and sold the two seater kayak – it had become a painful symbol of the life I couldn’t have, rather than inspiration for a life we could have if we just chose to put excuses aside.
The money was used family expenses, but I talked about how I intended to purchase a couple of one man kayaks to keep those resources in some kind of outdoor toy. I felt that was only fair. So, a year later, Mark gave me an inexpensive small kayak for Valentine’s Day. I was deeply appreciated of what I imagined the gift meant. We had built a dock on our little backyard pond, so the timing was lovely. But giving me only one boat sent a mildly disturbing message – kayaking would be a solitary pursuit if I wanted to get out in nature anytime soon.
“Maybe I’ll get you another kayak someday, so you can go out with somebody,” Mark said. “In the meantime, it will look great out there on the lake tied up to the dock.”
Of course, I could have gone out and used the boat alone, and frankly, lots of people would do just that. But my dream was not really to kayak as much as to be a part of a couple who shared adventures together. If I was going to carve out the time to enjoy singing birds and the rush of white water, I wanted company to share my thoughts and smiles with. I just didn’t have an interest in spending my afternoons all alone on the water. So the boat was never used beyond a few spins on the backyard pond by the kids.
When we decided to get a divorce, I took a trip home to spend a few days with my parents, asking for their advice and financial help in what had become a desperate situation. Mark was in survival mode and so he decided to unload as much as we could to get some quick cash– which meant everything that was mine was deemed expendable. The art I loved was put into a consignment shop, my bees and all my outdoor animals and equipment was sold to his friends. Nothing I cared about survived our separation because we needed money and my “stuff” was the easiest thing for him to let go of. Frankly, I was OK with that, because the family did need money. I told him to get rid of anything we needed to get rid of, the boat included. But I expected him to make the same kind of sacrifices. Instead, Mark kept everything of his, (tools and his recreational things) while giving the things I loved and valued most away for practically nothing. He sold the boat while I was out of town and later gave me “my half” – a whopping $50.00. I was more than a little disappointed. I offered to give up the boat because I thought we’d sell it for fair value. Had he considered what the sacrifice meant to me, he would have understood that 50.00 was too small a return to give up something you truly love. More than once I regretted leaving town and forfeiting a say in these matters because if I had kept the boat, I could have joined a kayak group and meet friends in Florida. But it really wasn’t the sort of boat I needed for real kayaking anyway, so I suppose it didn’t make a difference. Still, I missed my boat – mostly because of what it represented to me. The boat was mine –or at least, it was supposed to be. Ah well.. Bad times.
Anyway, with all this kayak history – the fact that my boyfriend now not only shares my interest in sporty fun, but the evidence that he has listened to my stories, and in response, does all he can to help me experience the rich, natural life I crave, means getting that dang kayak means the world to me.
Knowing David, I wasn’t at all surprised by his purchasing two kayaks for my birthday, because he bends over backwards to make me happy and he loves the water and is a serious hiker, runner, boater, etc… but we have financial stresses right now, so I did not expect any kind of recreational toy for some time.
After work, I went out to the parking lot, saw two kayaks on a car, felt that familiar stab of envy, and looked around.
“Where’s my car?” I said.
David chuckled and said, “Um… that IS your car, babe.”
It took a few moments for me to process what was happening.
He also bought and installed a roof rack for toting these boats which instantly transformed my car from some economical, dented, boring practical car to looking like a car that belonged to someone who lives large. I so appreciated his thinking through his gift and considering the practical issues regarding my being able to use the boats, and any other outdoor recreational things (bikes etc..) I might want to haul with my little, practical car. I can honestly say I love the roof rack as much as the boats.
“We can’t afford this right now…” I mumbled.
“I’m been saving for quite a while, planning to do something special for your birthday for a long time, so don’t worry. I ordered these boats months ago and worked things out to make it manageable . The investment makes sense because, we work way too much, and we don’t have a lot to invest in recreational fun. Now, we will always have the means to for entertainment and much needed down time in nature. We only have to carve out a few hours from work whenever we need a dose of peace and pleasure. ….”
At home he presented me with a big birthday bag of boat goodies – a spray skirt to keep water out of the kayak cab, a nifty cellphone holder that keeps your phone dry and floats and hooks to the boat, a compass, a map of all the kayaking routes and water in the area (over 14 amazing places to explore in my town alone, including salt and fresh water rivers, creeks, bays and more.) a package of 3 dry sacks, float cushions, and a watertight box for keys etc….
I wasn’t surprised by the handy extras. I always tease him, singing the Inspector Gadget theme song when he shows me something he has bought or owns, because he is like that cartoon character with everything associated to him having parts and extra features or special capabilities…. David’s idea of a perfect world would be everything having multi use and being as flexible and practical as a super duper Swiss army knife. Whatever doesn’t come that way, he invents – in his mind if not in reality. It’s an engineer thing, I guess.
Anyway, the most meaningful birthday gift was the other half of David’s present – my paddles.
David knows how much I appreciate homemade things –they represent the gift of time and talent. I consider a homemade gift way more loving than just buying someone something. Knowing this, he spent weeks working on homemade paddles for the boat. Always the intellectual, he researched the most effective paddles on the planet, and decided for our use, he would go with West Greenland paddles – a narrow, streamline paddle used by serious kayakers. Then, he worked diligently to hand plane and sand the wood, making a graceful, perfectly shaped paddle from beautiful cedar. He added inlays of white oak (a very hard wood) along the edges so they would be tough enough to sustain white water action. My paddle is designed for me, the length and width proportioned to my body. (A few months ago, at the dinner table, he made an excuse to measure my hands and the length of my arm – now I know why.) The paddles are unusual looking – skinny and long – but very beautiful with two tone wood and an artful grain running through the wood, all offset by a natural oil finish. These paddles would cost hundreds of dollars if he didn’t make them himself, but David is brilliant with woodworking, and he not only enjoyed working on the project, but knew I would assign special meaning to the gift. Great way to earn boyfriend brownie points. I consider the paddles a work of art as well as a fun utilitarian item. I almost hated using them, wincing as I dug into oyster beds when I ran aground to get a closer look at a bird in the mangroves. But David assured me his hand carved paddles would sustain hard use, and besides, he could always make us more if anything happened to them.
It was a beautiful day. David took the day off from work, made arrangements for me to have a day off too, and we spent the morning enjoying perfect weather as we explored Philippe Creek and the mouth of the bay on our new boats. We waved to other kayakers, couples out enjoying time together on the water, and I was thrilled to think I am now one of “those people” who actually make active fun (rather than shopping or eating out) a part of their daily lives. We stopped midday to have a seafood lunch at The Oyster bar, dining waterside on coconut shrimp and red potatoes. Later, having satiated ourselves with food, exercise and nature, we slipped the boats back on the car as conveniently as packing a suitcase for a trip. We then stopped for dessert at yogurtology and ate our concoctions outside as we discussed future adventures we might plan with the boats. David said that if Neva was at all interested, we could get a third boat when finance ease up, because my roof rack would handle it. He knows I want my children connected to nature and I’d love our outings be a family event. (The way he wants to provide me and my children with what we need to feel balanced means so much to me.) I sat on the white leather couch looking at my car loaded with kayaks, remembering how envious I was the dozens of times I saw cars sporting equipment like that before and thought how small shifts and changes can add up and change a life drastically for the better. We then stopped to get a coffee at Starbucks and did some people watching, and leisurely walked over to Elysian Fields to browse books on philosophy and organic living. Fun.
I said, “I can’t believe you bought me a boat… you just don’t know what that means to me.”
David said, “I didn’t buy you a boat. I bought you two boats. Let me make it perfectly clear that I didn’t by myself a boat and then give a boat to you. I bought you two kayaks so you will never have to go out paddling alone. And I bought you a roof rack so you never will be dependent upon someone else to figure out a way to use your boats. And if anything ever goes wrong between us (but it won’t) and you and I separate, you will still have your boats. That is what a gift is, Ginny. I will never take them back or sell them or tell you how to use them. You own two kayaks now…. And by the way, thank you for letting me use one of them today.”
But there was something so comforting in that speech. Because I don’t feel the boats are a “favor”, or that they will be taken away as punishment if I displease him in some way – and I don’t have to ask his permission to use them anytime I wish. I can let my son take the boats out with a college friend when he visits without feeling guilty or worrying about getting “permission”. In other words, these boats don’t have strings. I’ve never been given anything without strings.
At 5 we dropped Neva at school for backstage call for a school show she is in, and to kill time until the theater opened, we went out for wine and a turkey burger at Square One burgers. The day ended with our enjoying the Booker High School musical with my parents. It felt natural, family-ish and perfect. Thanks to David – the day was wonderful.
I won’t go into much detail here, but I should explain why a nice birthday means so much to me… I have a history of my family being very mean to me on my birthday. It’s a long and weird story, but for some reason my former husband and my children couldn’t stand for me to have a decent day on my birthday. In rebellion to feelings that they were obligated to acknowledge my day, they always acted out and purposely ruined my birthday. I actually hated my birthday because I had to brace myself for ugly treatment and disregard. It was so reoccurring that it became a family joke – everyone knew that on my birthday I’d be purposely hurt or treated badly by one or more of them, and they all laughed about it, as if being mean to me on my birthday was a funny tradition they were honor bound to keep. But what no one paused to consider was that their treatment truly was hurtful and disturbing to me. Mark never put his foot down and demanded the kids change their attitude on “my day”. I always went to great trouble to make their birthdays wonderful and so being treated in an unloving way on my day left me feeling unappreciated and undervalued. I never understood it.
Last year, I spent my birthday with David. We had been dating for months, but this was the first birthday we spent together. He had planned a lovely weekend at his home in Lake Placid. He made me a fantastic Japanese dinner at his house, serenaded me on his guitar for the first time, and gave me lovely sports watch wrapped in a swath of his favorite shirt (a symbolic gift)- My reaction to his kindness was to cry. Needing to explain my odd behavior, I shared some stories of previous lousy birthdays and how I hated celebrating the day because it dredged up memories of a family that never felt I was worth any kindness or respect. He listened, shocked. He just never heard of someone being treated awfully on their birthday for any reason. And he didn’t forget it.
This year, armed with insight and a better understanding of some of the wounds I’m still licking from a sour past, he took it upon himself to change my association to my birthday. It isn’t easy to be the one who mends the open wounds and slights of the past, but David seems to have taken on the challenge with a vengeance.
I should mention here that my daughter didn’t acknowledge my birthday, thus keeping the family tradition intact.
Neva stomped into the kitchen in the morning, ignoring me. Normally she is cheery and pleasant, but it was my birthday, so she was predisposed to be in a dour mood.
I said, “Have anything to say to me?”
“Oh yea, Happy Birthday,” she said as if it pained her to voice the sentiment aloud.
And that was it. She didn’t acknowledge my birthday in any other way the rest of the day.
The child’s hobby is making greeting cards and I’ve spent at least 400 dollars buying her supplies, embossers, paper, cricut machines etc.. to support her passion. She has at least twenty birthday cards in reserve already made and she is always looking for a way to get rid of them, but she didn’t bother to sign one and hand it to me.
When she saw the new boats on the car and I expressed my delight, she said, “What do you need a boat for? You had a boat and you never used it. You got rid of it…….”
I didn’t point out that I wasn’t the one who sold the boat.
I did tell her, “I’ve always wanted to own kayaks and I deeply appreciate that David has given me a gift that I’ve wanted all my life. He is taking me out kayaking for my birthday. Could you try being happy for me?”
“Whatever…” she said.
Later, when we came home I asked her how her day went at school. “Fine,” she said, turning her back on me and going into her room.
She didn’t ask how my day was or if I enjoyed kayaking. She didn’t ask if I was having a good birthday. It didn’t occur to her to perhaps make her bed or do some dishes or make me a cup of coffee as a birthday offering . She just asked me to cut up some fruit for her to snack on, and told me to be ready soon to take her to the show on time . She also reminded me she needed her laundry done.
David watched, deeply disappointed in her, and deeply disappointed for me, recognizing once again that everything I’ve told him about my past family is true, even when stories of selfishness or lack of respect sound so bizarre you’d think I was kidding. But evidence of that madness reveals itself all the time and he has long since realized I’m not exaggerating..
“She needs someone to set her straight,” he said, gritting his teeth because he has a great deal of class and he always treats others with honor and respect. He has very little tolerance for people who are rude and yet he is too polite to ever say anything in response to rudeness (which is kind of funny if you think about it.).
I told him to let it go. I have long since taught myself not to take the behavior of my family personally.
“Your kids haven’t been taught to treat you with respect or with the reverence a parent who works as hard as you do deserve. It just seems wrong.”
“You more than make up for it.” I said.
Later, I gave thought to the difference between how I am treated now compared to my past.
David is unfailingly giving, patient, kind, mannered, and brilliantly competent. He takes care of me. Loves me. Is considerate and tender. It occurs to me that whether or not I deserve all his beautiful treatment, I’ve earned it. Because life has a way of finding equilibrium and his exaggerated goodness balances out and corrects everything my life was missing before.
Every day is my birthday now.