The secret of giving the perfect gift

"Do you think he uses the same shampoo as I do?" mused my 8-year-old as she patiently combed out the horse's tail. It had been an afternoon of delight for my two daughters: chasing chickens to the henhouse and rooting around for the day's eggs; feeding horses and ferrets and one lone rabbit; and, finally, grooming and then riding two majestic horses. Minutes turned to hours, and before long the sun had set. Bellies full, the animals turned in for the night, and we made our way from paddock to farmhouse in the dark. Fresh cookies and brownies awaited us there, along with a cat and three dogs eager for company. We reluctantly but finally bid our furry friends adieu.

The afternoon of farm chores and an impromptu riding lesson was a thank-you present, given to me by a grateful parent at the school where I work. I had done a lot for her two girls, she said, and now it was time to do something for mine.

I've thought a lot about this gift in the weeks since, almost as much as my children have talked about their idyllic afternoon. To two suburban kids, a day's chores on a farm were an exhilarating novelty, a priceless present.

It could have been so easy for this mother to do what everybody else does: send along a generic gift that cost too few minutes to choose and too much money to spend. Instead, she chose to give the gift of her time, to spend hours, not dollars, on something I would truly appreciate.

I thought about it again this week, when my mother-in-law chose to mark my wedding anniversary with a similar gift. Though she, too, could have taken the easy way out – a store-bought card, a gift certificate – she decided to send something that would resonate with me and my husband, her son. Knowing how much we like to cook, and how much I, in particular, love old things, she selected gifts from her own house: his grandmother's much-prized recipes, written in her own hand, and a stunning little portrait of his great-great- grandfather on the eve of his departure to fight in the Civil War.

It is my daughter's birthday. She wakes early, excited, and hurries downstairs for breakfast. Later I lay out her choice of presents, as I do on each child's birthday.

This year, as always, she may choose just one. Perhaps she'll pick the tiny cameo necklace I wore as a child, or the ring my grandfather made for me so many years ago, or the charm bracelet my dad once gave me, now back in fashion. There will be no other presents, and that suits her just fine. I am persuaded that the best present is carefully considered, a gift of emotion and time, not dollars.

Over the years, I have given pies, poetry, and paintings. In turn I have been given a weekend of leaf raking (thank you, Dotty!), a few hours of spackling and painting (thank you, Ariane!), and of course that marvelous afternoon on the farm.

And isn't that what a fine gift is all about?

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