My family loves surprises.
A couple weeks ago, I drove to Chicago to surprise my mom for her 70th birthday. She and my dad had been on a cruise and I met them at the airport with a big sign my kids had made, complete with sparkly stickers and glitter glue. It was awesome.
That particular maneuver – the “show up somewhere you aren’t expected” form of surprise – has always been my favorite. When I was in college, I would occasionally rearrange my schedule and come home early for a holiday gathering. I’d ring the doorbell and delight in my parents’ surprise and happiness at my unexpected arrival. Elaborate surprise parties have their place, but they’re harder to pull off and stressful to coordinate. The more intimate surprises are just as fun.
A good surprise doesn’t even have to involve in-person appearances. For my dad’s 70th birthday, I collected stories and photographs from family and friends, spanning all the way back to an elementary school buddy. I compiled it all together in a photo book that I watched him open via Skype. It was perfect.
Then I have to tell you about the socks. My mom and I had a thing about socks for a while, circa the late 1990s. We exchanged funny, cool, silly socks and delivered them in creative and amusing ways. You want to plan a surprise? You go to my mother. The woman is a pro. I would find socks hanging from my rearview mirror after sports practice. Or they’d turn up inside my locker thanks to shameless bribing of friends or school officials. Hotel staff delivered a pair (on a silver platter no less) to my room when I was on a class trip. But the best of all? The summer I spent on an archaeological dig in Israel…she somehow got a fellow dig member to bury a pair of socks for me to find. I kid you not. It totally happened.
I’m baffled by – and a bit suspicious of – people who don’t embrace surprises like I do. I can remember an alarming conversation with my ex-husband early in our marriage wherein he asked what I wanted for my birthday, I told him, and he said okay.
Wait. What?!? No! I was horrified.
One does not simply agree to a proposed birthday gift. One feigns nonchalance. One engages in elaborate subterfuge to throw the other person off track. One buys an additional present to give them first so that they think that’s it and then one reveals the main present afterward with a triumphant flourish, basking in the glory of a well-executed surprise. I’m not going to say that exchange was the beginning of the end for us (we’d only been married a couple months, after all), but looking back it was clearly a red flag.
I’m doing my best to train my children to love and appreciate surprises. They know they will get nothing but a raised eyebrow if they dare to inquire about gifts for upcoming holidays and they are learning to take joy in surprising others with small, heartfelt gestures.
My mom and my son share a love of sungold tomatoes. Last weekend, he decided that she needed some with dinner. I was directed to distract her while he snuck out of the house. He got on his bicycle and pedaled to our church – conveniently located several blocks away – where he picked a handful of tomatoes from the communal garden and transported them home in a Tinkerbell backpack borrowed from his sister. He carefully wrapped his treasures in tissue paper, stuck them in a decorative box, and proudly presented them to my mom. That’s my boy.
In case you’re wondering, my birthday is in November and I enjoy chocolate, ethnic restaurants, and cozy fall apparel. I shan’t give you any additional suggestions. Surprise me!