This Side Up

The faith of a birthday gift


I now understand my father’s smile of 35 years ago. I must have had the same smile Saturday night.

The occasion of my father’s smile was a cold Feb. 2. It was snowy and the forecast called for more snow. But it was his 60th birthday and I didn’t want to miss the party, although it wouldn’t be easy getting to his house in Connecticut.

I wrestled with what to get him. I wanted something unique; yet not so weird that, after the laughs, it would get relegated to a closet and probably end up being given to someone else when he was hard-pressed to find a gift.

I considered going practical, maybe even a snow blower, seeing there appeared to be no end to snow, but “Boring,” was my conclusion. He might even resent.

I needed something adventuresome, even challenging, and the snow part of my idea provided the ideal answer.

Carol and I discovered the fun of cross-country skiing a year earlier. We bought wooden skis, bamboo poles and special boots with three holes in the toes that clamped into bindings with raised pins. The skis required wax for different conditions. It is a process that requires a lot of rubbing – burnishing – before clamping on the skis and setting off in a pole-slide motion that, if you were reasonably coordinated, gets you places other than on your butt in the snow.

At that time, cross-country skiing was just catching on. We bought ours in New Hampshire and I couldn’t find anything comparable around here, so I wrapped my skis and found the original box for the boots. My 60th birthday gift was ready.

I was surprised by my father’s delight.

It was dark by the time I reached the house, so he didn’t head right out the door to try them. In fact, I don’t know if he ever used them. He slipped on the boots and walked around the living room. He mimicked the pole-glide motion without snapping on the skis.

Then there was the smile.

It was his smile that I remember best. I had given him something I didn’t really understand until my own kids surprised me on my 71st birthday. The plan was to be at my son Ted’s house by 4 p.m. and to celebrate his mother in-law’s birthday and my own simultaneously. I was running late, which explains why I was rushed into the living room as soon as I got there.

Ted held out his iPad and there was my daughter, Diana, her daughter Natalie and husband Scott, grinning at me from Wyoming. They were on Skype. As they sang, Ted walked across the room and then angled the iPad so they could see what was behind the couch.

There was no mistaking an 11-foot paddleboard.

Ted has taken me out on his friends’ boards off Point Judith and at Matunuck. Riding boards in the waves can be a blast and humbling. Stand up paddling takes practice and surfing on them, especially when you’re heading for the rocks, is a breath away from insanity.

Diana was anxious to see my reaction as Ted lifted the board, revealing its red pattern, evoking images of far off islands and native art. I was already being transported and we were nowhere near the water.

A few minutes later my son, Jack, was on the phone from Vietnam. He was anxious to hear what I thought. I had to be smiling. What I was given was much more than a board and a paddle. This was a statement that age is no barrier to trying new things, that one’s mind – if not one’s body – is capable.

I won’t be passing my board along to my father, although at 95, he still might give it a shot. I expect I will be smiling when I’m sent headlong into the waves, as I’m sure will happen. Believing in you is part of the battle. Having others – especially your own kids – believe in you is even better.


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