As you may know by now, I have a bit of difficulty in keeping surprises a surprise when it comes to my wife.
Oh, I try. I really do. But she almost always knows I’m planning something for her major celebratory days (birthday, anniversary, Christmas, etc.) and starts pestering me for hints weeks in advance. And like a moron, I always think, “This time I’m really gonna pull it off. She’ll never guess this hint.” Then, as though she’s plucked it from my very mind, out she comes with the answer, pissing me off and causing me to vow never again to give her any hints. Then the next birthday comes along and there I go lobbing hints like softballs at the Near-Sighted-Middle-School-Girl’s Little League Playoffs.
After my defeat last October—in which I entirely failed to keep secret the fact that her birthday present was me finally hauling away our old washing machine, freeing up valuable space in the dining room—I became determined that I was finally gonna get one past the batter.
My three opportunities to do so, barring any unforeseen emergency holidays, were Christmas, our anniversary and Ashley’s med-school graduation present. Christmas was right out, because by the time I thought of a really good and perfect present December had already passed. That left our 5th anniversary in early February and graduation in late May. I aimed for Feb.
And as to the perfect present… Oh, it was just too good.
A couple of years ago, while browsing in a nearby gallery of community art, Ashley fell in love with a painting by local artist Jeanne Brenneman. It was a floral watercolor entitled Flower Tower. Beyond the beauty of the flowers depicted, though, the construction of the painting and frame was nearly as intriguing. Mrs. Brenneman had taken an eight-inch-square piece of rough hand-made watercolor paper, the kind with craggy crinkly edges, and glued it to a larger piece of watercolor paper, also with cool craggy edges. Atop these layers, she painted the watercolor floral scene, and a most beautiful one at that. Then she mounted the whole thing on a thin piece of foam core which she in turn mounted to a matte board, framed by another matte board but with enough space that the viewer could see this painting floating above the back-most board, and then the whole thing was sealed in a wooden outer frame. It was beautiful work. Ashley thought it was fantastic. She immediately declared her undying love for the painting and threatened to buy it right there. Then she saw the price tag and we realized we could neither justify nor afford dropping several hundred dollars for it, no matter how much we loved the painting. And while the artist herself was known to do prints of her existing work, a print of this picture, no matter how well-rendered, could never match the original three-dimensional work.
Deciding not to buy this painting was a harder thing to do than we thought, though. We went back to the hall more than once just to look at the painting. And then, several months later, Ashley tracked down Mrs. Brenneman’s website, discovered the painting was again on display in another town and we drove nearly an hour to go see it. Once again, though, we could not justify its purchase. Not with two cars in need of repair and rent in need of being paid. We’d have to save such extravagances for the future, like maybe in 2039, after we’ve paid off the school loans.
As distant a purchase as that seemed, the idea of the painting and the memory of how much Ashley loved it stuck in my head and then resurfaced in January when I was brainstorming presents for our 5th anniversary. I decided to look into it. And while I still couldn’t really justify buying the painting as a whim purchase, I was—with a careful application of rationalization—able to justify purchasing it for a major event.
So I sent Mrs. Brenneman an e-mail explaining who I was, which painting I was interested in, and that I was interested in purchasing it as a surprise present for either our then upcoming 5th anniversary or for Ash’s graduation. Was it still on the market? Mrs. Brenneman soon wrote me back and said that it was indeed still on the market, but had been submitted for inclusion in an upcoming painting competition and would possibly be unavailable until late April. This was fine with me, as it helped me decide when I was going to give it to Ashley. What I liked even better was that her asking price for the painting was at least a full $100 less than I remembered it cost before. Win win.
After this, I just had to start saving cash. I stashed away bits and pieces from paycheck to paycheck as well as my entire payment for some freelance web design work I had done. My nest egg grew, safely hidden away. (I knew it was safe cause Ashley knows I never have any money, so she doesn’t go looking for it.)
Meanwhile, I knew I had to come up with some way to keep hint-beggar Ashley off my back. May was quickly approaching and the closer we got to it the more likely she would start asking what my plans were. To the rescue came my mother-in-law. She e-mailed me to ask if I would like to go in on a family graduation present of some black pearl jewelry that she hoped to persuade Ash’s grandmother and sisters to join in for. I said it sounded like a fine gift, but I opted out citing my own plans.
“Don’t give her any hints!” Ma warned. Evidently Ma didn’t tell that to everyone else in her little cabal. Within a week, Ashley came to me and told me that she knew there were some sort of group plans afoot. Apparently, her grandmother had spilled that much, though she hadn’t spoiled any surprises.
“Oh, really?” I said, trying to act innocent, which I knew Ashley would interpret as guilt.
“You know about it, don’t you?!”
“Gimme a hint!”
“Nope. I can’t say a word about it,” I told her. “This is something other people are working on, so I can’t give any hints.”
“Aw, c’mon! Just one hint.”
“No!” I shouted. I then further distanced myself from any hint-giving by speaking exclusively to the cat for the next 20 minutes.
The spoilage of Ma and Company’s surprise was a blessing in disguise, though. So long as I continued to deny everything and not give any hints, Ashley seemed satisfied that I was in cahoots with them and left me alone about any solo plans I might have. And so the days passed.
Since January, I’d kept in contact with Mrs. Brenneman and had continued to let her know I was still planning to make the purchase of her painting. We set a date, to meet at my library workplace to make the exchange, and soon our agreed upon date of May 26 had arrived. My co-workers were all in on the surprise by then and were sworn to secrecy.
Mrs. Brenneman arrived at exactly the time she said she would, painting case in hand. We chatted a little about the painting, the awards that it had won and her general creative process for it. Then, I filled out a bill of sale form she had brought, made a copy of it for her and made the purchase. The painting was now mine and soon it would be my wife’s. I just had to find a good place to hide it.
I left work in the early afternoon on Thursday and headed home. Ashley’s parents had already arrived, but had taken her out for lunch, leaving me the run of the house. My plan was to hide it somewhere inconspicuous-yet-accessible so I could sneak out late Friday night and hang it up somewhere in the house. After abandoning a few bad ideas, I opted to hide the painting behind the door to my office. The door is always open and would be difficult to close even if I wanted to due to the runner carpet wadded up in front of it. Seemed perfect. I even gave the room a few walk-by passes from the hall to make sure it didn’t attract my eye. Seemed good to me.
That night, Ashley, Ma, Pa and I went to the big awards banquet at Ashley’s school. This is the traditional ceremony where all the students and their families come and feast from a banquet buffet while the school’s faculty congratulates them for surviving all the way to graduation. A number of students are recognized with scholarship awards and the sashes and cords for the top 10 percent grade achievers are passed out. (Ash wasn’t among the top 10 percent, but she’s not far from it. Frankly, passing medical school at all is the major achievement. And like the old joke goes: Question– What do you call a student who graduates from medical school with a GPA of 70? Answer– Doctor.)
Ashley had brought along a manila folder, which I thought was a little odd, especially after she became real secretive about it when I asked what it contained.
About mid-way through the awards ceremony, the dean of students stood and announced she was about to award the American Osteopathic Foundation’s Donna Jones Moritsugu Award, an award given to an non-student individual who has demonstrated “immeasurable support” of a student enrolled in the medical school and to the Osteopathic profession at large. The candidate for the award is chosen from several such candidates and voted upon by the faculty of the school itself. In addition to a beautiful framed plaque, the award came with a check for $240. And when the dean announced the winner of the award, she called my name.
I was stunned. I never knew such an award existed in the first place, nor would I have expected to win it if I had. I suppose, that I wouldn’t have been surprised to have been a candidate, after all I was the co-president of the school’s spouse/significant other support organization for a year and helped out at the school in other ways. But primarily, the award was granted for helping support my wife as she went through the four years of schooling. In other words, I was given the award for being a good husband. How many men get to say they were given an award (one that came with cash) for being a good husband? Not many, I’d wager.
After the ceremony, on our way to the car, Ashley revealed what she had in the manila envelope. She had intended to open it and distribute its contents during the ceremony, but no such opportunity was officially offered. What it contained were were two printed citations, one for Ma and Pa and one for me. They had the official school seal and signature of the president of the school, and stated that they were given as a token of her sincerest gratitude for supporting and encouraging her efforts during school. The award was given as thanks for patience and love and being an integral part of her success. This single paper meant more to me than the framed one I’d just received inside. And it was at that moment that I decided I would give Ashley her present earlier than I’d intended.
My original plan had been to keep her painting a surprise all the way until Saturday morning. I was planning to sneak out and hang it up on an existing nail during the night and let her discover it when she got up Saturday. There on Thursday night, though, I felt such gratitude for the award she’d just given me that I wanted to rush home and give the painting right then. This was an urge I was able to fight off, though. I’d worked far too hard to keep this thing under wraps to give in quite that easily. However, I didn’t think it would hurt to give it to her a day early.
That night, just after we had retired for the evening, I got up to go fill my bedside water bottle and grabbed the painting from its hiding place on the way down the hall. I took down an existing frame on one wall of our living room, hung the new painting up, filled my bottle and then stashed the old frame behind the office door on my way back to bed. We went to sleep.
Early in the morning, our cat began driving us crazy. Usually we let her out in the evening, when she can run around in the dark and feel relatively safe from the entire lack of big bad animals that don’t stalk and kill her during the day. However, she didn’t get to go out in the evening because she was too scared that Ma and Pa might stalk and kill her if she came out from hiding. So at 5 in the morning, she began making a pest of herself, jumping on and off the bed and running up and down the halls at full speed, making as much noise as possible, in an effort to anger us to the point that we hurl her from the house.
“I better go let the cat out,” Ashley said, groggily.
“I can do it,” I said, fearing that she would see her surprise on the way through the living room.
“No, I got it,” she said, rising and snatching up the cat. I prayed silently that she wouldn’t notice her gift hanging on the living room wall, only a few feet from the back door, but figured that it wouldn’t be so bad if she did. She didn’t see it, though, and came right back to bed.
When we finally got up for good, around 7, I followed her into the kitchen. I had wondered how long it would take for her to notice it. I’d even envisioned the possibility that she wouldn’t notice it and would leave for her school-related functions that morning. Nope. Within 30 seconds of entering the kitchen, she turned, caught sight of it, turned away then did a double-take as her brain registered what she had seen. Her mouth dropped open and she said, “Ohhhhh.” Then she stared across the room at the painting for a long time, her eyes welling up with tears, then turned and smiled at me. The reaction was so satisfying. It was worth every bit of sneaking and plotting and secret-keeping on my part.
“How long have you been planning this?” she asked.
“Months,” I said.
“And he kept it a secret all this time!” Ma crowed triumphantly on my behalf. “He finally got one on you!”
“He did,” Ash said, giving me a big kiss. “He finally did.”
Copyright © 2005 Eric Fritzius