A gift that kept me grounded

The lasting value of my grandfather’s graduation present wasn’t clear at first. But over time, I've come to understand its pricelessness.

Karen Norris/Staff

I was sitting in an airport when I overheard a woman seated behind me say, “What’s the best gift you ever got?” 

I closed the magazine I’d paid too much for and listened for an answer. 

“You mean like, best birthday present?” a young man asked.

“Gift, present, whatever you want to call it,” she said. “Yeah.” 

There’s an art to killing time in an airport. It requires resourcefulness, and for me that includes eavesdropping. I’d much rather listen in on strangers than read about celebrity workout routines.

“Well,” the young man said. “Probably the gold coin I got for graduation. It’s worth a lot.” There was a pause. He didn’t reciprocate, didn’t return the question, as I would have, with a question about her “best gift.” 

Fighting off the urge to turn around and glare at him, or maybe ask her myself, I tossed my magazine onto a neighboring chair and thought about the question. What’s the best gift I ever got? Good health aside, when it comes to material objects, for me the answer is easy.

It was a high school graduation present, gift-wrapped and hand-­delivered by my grandfather. 

In case you’ve ever wondered, no amount of gift wrap can obscure the distinct shape of this particular object, a garden implement. 

“Congratulations,” he said. 

I tore open the paper. “Wow,” I said. “A shovel. Thank you.”

“It’s a spade,” he said, gently but firmly. From that moment on I’ve known there was a difference. He put his hand out for a shake. “Stay close to the land. Don’t be afraid to dig in and get a little dirt on you.”

“Oh, I won’t,” I said. “I love to work in the yard. I love dirt!” It was true, but I laughed at how it sounded. He didn’t.

That fall, I went off to college, and that shiny new green-handled spade with the silver blade hung untouched on the wall in my parents’ garage. A few years later, I got an office job. My girlfriend became my wife. Eventually we moved into a house of our own, and that graduation spade made its way from my folks’ garage into my own. I dug gardens, planted trees and roses and bushes, the usual stuff. The spade was nothing but a tool. I was just glad to have it. Glad I didn’t have to buy one. 

The years rolled by. The seasons came and went. So did jobs, houses, our two kids. The wife stayed. The spade, too. It’s lost some of its color (the spade, not the wife). I’ve added some gray.

Now, 40-plus years after I unwrapped that gift, I still dig hard into the earth, more often than ever, chopping into roots, jabbing, stabbing, and cutting clods with it. It’s more than a trusted workout partner. It’s a reminder of my family, one proudly rooted in agriculture. If I’d gotten a gold coin instead, it’d be locked up in a safe-deposit box or long since cashed in and spent. But a useful tool with a memorable message about staying close to the earth? Priceless.

A few months from now my daughter will finish graduate school, and she already has a job waiting in another city. She’s knowledge-rich but cash-poor, and though she’s expecting nothing from me, I have something valuable to give her before she moves away. 

It’ll be wrapped, of course, and if she opens it and says, “Wow. A shovel,” I’ll be ready with a few words of earthy wisdom. They’ll be worth their weight in gold. 

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