The Gifts My Father Has Given

In my hands I held a hardback copy of Jules Verne’s Classic Science Fiction, torn airmail packaging scattered at my feet. The inscription: “To Matt, with love from Grandpa Loren, San Francisco.” Why is my 75-year-old father sending my 9-year-old son a 511-page book? The inappropriateness of the gift irritated me—a gift hurriedly bought with too little care given.

But perhaps it was unfair of me to expect my father to know what a boy of nine would like. Then I remembered that spring, when we had visited San Francisco. Dad had sprinted after a cable car, grabbing Matt’s hand and leaping aboard. Later he plucked a nickel off the street.

“Matt, look! When you put a coin on the track—the cable car almost cuts it in half!” I can still picture them standing there, heads bent in mutual admiration.

Less irritated, I stared out the window at our dog Hondo, sleeping on the deck. He had been with us since he was eight weeks old. Gray hairs covered the muzzle of glossy black head, and the lids beneath his brown eyes drooped slightly. His huge Lab feet splayed when he walked, more gray hairs grew from between his pads. I thought of my father’s beard and how I had watched the streaks of gray widen until gray was all there was.
Freckles rested next to Hondo, her border collie fur ruffling in the breeze. Much of her puppy freckling had faded. I thought back to previous summer.

Fourteen years represent a full life for a dog. Hondo’s moon had begun to wane, growing weaker with the setting of each sun. The time for a second dog had come, but it was with guilt that we brought Freckles home to the ranch. When she scrambled out of the truck, puppy legs trembling, Hondo was a perfect gentleman. He sniffed and she cowered. She whined and he licked. Tails wagged, and a friendship was born.

Down at the barn, Freckles watched Hondo, a gracious teacher, sit patiently while we saddled the horses. She sat down as well. The cats rubbed up against Hondo’s legs and Freckles learned not to chase cats. We rode out to check heifers, and Hondo trotted faithfully behind. Freckles learned that it was not all right to harass a cow or deer. Freckles grew lanky, and a new sprightliness came to Hondo’s step. Years fell away. We began throwing sticks for him again, and he fetched until his panting jaws could no longer hold the stick. Freckles never learned to love the game, but she cheered him on anyway. He was given a brief reprieve, a second wind.

Then a hot summer day and too many miles traveled on dusty cow trails took their toll. Hondo collapsed by the corral. Soft coaxing and gentle stroking brought him around. Matt and Freckles looked on, watching him stagger to his feet and shake the dirt from his coat. Hondo drank deeply from the bucket by the house before climbing to the deck and taking up his post near the door. The next time we saddled the horses and rode out into the pasture, we locked him in the horse trailer. He peered through the wooden slats; his feelings hurt beyond comprehension.

“It’s all right, old boy,” I had said, “we’ll be back.” But he had become deaf and did not hear me. After that we had continued to take him with us on our rides. His moon would wane, no matter how protective we were.

I remember setting the heavy volume of Julies Verne on the table and picking up the discarded packaging. Outside, a car had driven by on the gravel road. Freckles heard the car and stood, ears pricked forward. Hondo slept. Then Freckles barked, a quick and high-pitched sound—unlike the deep, chesty waring that had guarded our home for fourteen years. It was the noise of the car that finally awakened Hondo; Freckles high-pitched bark penetrating his increasing deafness. He lifted his head to look about and saw Freckles on duty, poised and ready. With a dep sign of resignation, he lowered his head onto his paws and closed his eyes.

I wanted to go outside and take Hondo’s gentle head in my hands look into his brown eyes and speak softly, letting him feel with his heart those things he could no longer hear me say. I  wanted him to cling to my world a little longer.

Instead, I picked up the book and reread the inscription.

“To Matt, with love from Grandpa Loren.”

Suddenly the gift made sense. Fourteen years had separated Hondo and Freckles. Sixty-five years and a thousand miles had separated my father from his grandson. Only a few more years of gift-giving had stretched before him. He, too, counted the setting of each sun, watched the waning of his moon. Time did not allow him the luxury of sending only appropriate gifts. If in ten years Matt opened this book, ready to dive 20,000 leagues beneath the sea, it would be his grandfather’s words wishing him bon voyage.

Putting the heavy volume down softly on the table, I opened the door and walked out onto the deck. Hondo’s fur shone in the sunlight. He felt the vibrations of my steps and his tail began to move slowly, back and forth.

Post Script: My son is 35 years old now, and though he has not yet journeyed 20,000 leagues beneath the sea, he does fly 20,000 feet up into the wild blue sky. My father and Hondo have long since passed on, but last week my father was honored at the 50th Anniversary of the College for Financial Planning in Chicago. The board chair flew me, as the daughter of Loren Dunton, founder of the College and Father of Financial Planning, to Chicago as their guest of honor for the black-tie gala event. In this photo I am speaking about my father and the passion that always fueled his visions. This Christmas seems like an appropriate time to share "Gifts," the story above (first published in my memoir In Search of Kinship, later reprinted elsewhere, including Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul. P.S.S. A note about the photo  of the black lab: although the photo above is not a photo of Hondo, the same love and devotion shines through. 


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