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The best gift my dad ever got

There was nothing complicated about Father’s Day in my family. My mother bought a gift, gave it to me, and I presented it to Dad. Something practical for a hard-working man: a shirt, a modest tie for Sundays, some big white handkerchiefs, a new belt.

Never French cologne. Or Italian loafers. Or a fine imported wine. Not for my father. And God forbid he should open a gift box and find a gold chain necklace or bracelet. The only jewelry my father owned was a watch with a leather band.

When I was old enough to shop, Old Spice, wrapped in paper with a bow, was the go-to gift for all occasions. Dad always acted surprised, even though the shape of the bottle was a dead giveaway. The familiar scent of Old Spice when I’m out in public conveys a sense of comfort to this very day.

One year I gave my father chocolate covered cherries, his favorite. He took one and passed the box around the room. It came back empty. I made sure he was alone the next time I gave him chocolate covered cherries.

Dad was happiest when he was making someone else happy — preferably his wife or children. He had spent months converting an old chicken house into a stable and fencing in a pasture so that his obsessed daughter could have a horse. The first time I rode my big gray gelding in a horse show was on Father’s Day. I was 15 that year, and my father’s excitement matched mine.

We didn’t own a horse trailer, so we borrowed one from a friend, and Dad attached a trailer hitch to his small paneled work truck. The one-horse trailer was ancient and dilapidated, and Dad worked night and day to replace the rotted floor boards and repair the sagging tailgate. While he sawed and hammered, I scrubbed manure stains from my horse’s gray coat, shined his hooves and soaped my saddle.

The show was on a Sunday, and it meant skipping church, which usually only happened if the case of death or a plague of locusts. Not that I minded, but it meant that my parents had to arrange for others to assume their very important duties in our church. They were indispensable, after all.

When the time came, I insisted on riding in the trailer with my horse to keep him calm. It was unlawful, but Dad was never good at saying “no” to his daughters. That was my mother’s department. Standing in the partially open trailer at my horse’s head and speaking in soothing tones to distract him from his scary first trailer ride, I knew just what my parents were doing in the front seat of our car. They were praying for a safe, successful day.

I am reminded of that Sunday every year on Father’s Day. It was the day I won my first ribbon ever. It might have been yellow, for a third place finish in a class of 12, but it felt like a grand championship win at Madison Square Garden. After leaving the show ring, I dismounted, unclipped the beautiful ribbon from my horse’s bridle, and handed it to my father.

“Happy Father’s Day, Dad,” I said. “You worked harder for this than anybody.”

He told me it was the best gift he had ever received — in his entire life. I knew that he meant it because he put it in a place of honor: on his bedside table beside his black Bible. Sixty-six years later, when my father is no longer with us, that yellow ribbon still occupies a place of honor in my home and in my heart.

Peggy Rowe (peggyrwriter@gmail.com) is a writer and former school teacher in Baltimore County. Her first book, “About My Mother,” was published in November and became a NYT, WSJ and Amazon best seller and has 94,000 followers on Facebook. Her second book will be out next year.

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