What really matters when the budget won't stretch

My two oldest sons sons, Nelson and Alexander, began delivering papers a month before their father's birthday. Weeks before their first paychecks arrived, they began worrying about how they'd afford a birthday gift for him.

We pored over craft books and brainstormed different ideas, but they wanted something special this year.

They were thrilled when the newspaper began a contest. All they had to do was convince one person to subscribe to the paper, and they'd win four tickets to a local hockey game.

That's all the incentive they needed. They stopped at each house while delivering their papers after school.

"Would you like to subscribe to the paper?" asked my 8-year-old. Again and again, people shook their heads and closed their doors. Finally, one neighbor subscribed. They raced to make the call to the office.

Two days later, Alexander and Nelson proudly handed their father his birthday gift. They watched as he opened the card, and four tickets to a hockey game fell onto his lap, as well as four coupons for free pizza and soda pop.

The night of the game arrived and Grandma tucked a $5 bill into each of the boys' hands for a treat of their choice. At the auditorium we joined the crowd surging into the building. The boys walked quietly beside us, inhaling the smells of pizza and pretzels, and the sounds of anticipation.

"Do you want to go to the Outpost and spend your money?" I asked the boys, since we had 20 minutes before the game began. They jumped up, eager to spend their fortunes.

Parents and children strolled around the store, searching for souvenirs and sports gear. We saw racks of team sweaters, $50. We ran our fingers over polar-fleece vests, $35. Alexander picked up a knitted cap, $20. Nelson fingered a baseball cap, $15.

Alexander moved around the counter, mouthing the price of everything he touched. He carefully lifted each item, assessing its value before putting it down and moving on to the next. He spotted pucks enclosed in a glass case. Each shiny black puck sported a logo from a different hockey team, $6. He looked from the pucks to me and back

again. Before he voiced his question, a whine distracted him.

"But I don't want that sweater. I have one like it at home," moaned a boy who looked like a miniature hockey player in team jersey, hockey pads, and helmet.

"What do you want me to buy for you then?" his mother pleaded. "Pick something, anything."

Alexander dropped his hands from the counter and turned to me with unspoken questions in his eyes.

"Alexander, do you want one of those pucks?" I asked.

"They're too much money, Mom," he sighed.

"I think I can manage to pay the extra, Honey."

"But Mom, there's tax on top of the price, too," he reasoned. "There's nothing here for under $5. Let's just go." His shoulders drooped as he uttered the last sentence.

I opened my purse and counted out some change. "Look, Honey, I have enough." I turned to Nelson. "Do you want one, too?"

They each picked out a puck. We reached our seats just as the game was about to begin. My husband and sons lost themselves in the glory of the game while I sat back in my seat and mulled over what had just happened. Anger and frustration at my own inadequacies overwhelmed me.

I wanted more than a $5 puck for my children. I wanted new shoes instead of secondhand, and I wanted to buy them without having to weigh their value against groceries, heat, and electricity. I wanted to clothe my kids in brand-name clothing and buy them the newest electronic gadgets instead of hunting for them at garage sales.

I knew money couldn't buy happiness. But just once, I thought, I wanted the chance to try.

The game wore on as I stewed silently in my seat. Finally, intermission arrived, and the boys wanted to wander again. My husband volunteered to go with them.

Suddenly a little hand shoved a cone of cotton candy in my face. "Thanks for bringing us, Mom," said my 8-year-old.

"But Honey, you and Nelson earned those tickets. You brought us."

"Well, yeah, but you came, didn't you?" he reasoned.

I looked down into his eyes. They seemed to have grown two sizes that evening as they tried to assimilate everything. Suddenly I saw a lifetime of memories being stored for days when the sky wasn't as blue as those eyes were tonight. No $50 sweater would ever bring him that much joy, and I had been a fool to think it would.

I gathered his squirming body into a hug and squeezed. I finally understood. The best thing, the only gift worth giving, was the gift of my presence. Cost: not one single penny.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting experiences, send an e-mail to: home@csps.com.

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