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Presence far better than presents for most parents

Published August 02. 2010 09:30AM

A friend of mine has two very generous adult daughters. For my friend's milestone birthday, her daughters told her they would give her anything she wanted.

"All I want," she said, "is to spend time with you."

No, they told her, this is your special birthday and we want to give you something really special.

The daughters are both married and no longer live near their parents. My friend laments that they only get together for weddings and funerals. "And lately, it's been far more funerals than weddings," she said.

She emphasized to her daughters that if they wanted to give her the most precious gift in the world for her milestone birthday, they should come for a visit.

"At least for a day," said my friend, "I want the gift of spending time with them. There is nothing in the world that I want more."

She understands that her daughters have lives of their own. Although their own children are no longer at home, they both have demanding jobs and busy lives.

"Every time I talk with either one of them on the phone, that's the word I hear - busy, busy, busy," said my friend. "They're busy with their own lives."

As her birthday approached, the daughters told their mother it would be one she would remember. She thought that meant they were coming home to surprise her.

Instead, her birthday present was the biggest flat screen television set I have ever seen. In addition, the daughters pooled their money and paid for a year's worth of premium television service.

The daughters found it easier to give an elaborate present than to make a trip home. "Someday soon," they promised.

That was three years ago. My friend is still waiting, still hoping for the precious gift of presence, instead of presents.

I thought about her this week when I received a rare treat - a visit from my firstborn. She lives in Colorado for the past seven years and has a job that gives her very little free time. Before that, she spent almost four years in Germany.

The few times we got together during those years were far too brief and far too hectic. She spent the time looking after her daughter and I spent much of the time in the kitchen, trying to show love by making her favorite homemade foods. Our best bonding times came when we stayed up late when everyone was in bed.

It's the same way in many families. Once children leave for college and then marry and have children of their own, parental visits aren't all that often - except for the lucky families who live near each other.

Growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania, close-knit families were the norm. Back there, there wasn't so much mobility and families tended to live near each other. That meant Sunday family dinners and family outings were easy to enjoy.

Somewhere along the way, "upward mobility" changed family proximity and as a result, family dynamics. Those of us with family members scattered around the globe envy those who can have a family dinner without benefit of airfares and limited vacation days.

Truth be told, when I moved to Florida I broke my younger daughter's heart. Before I moved we were close enough for me to attend every family event and close enough to be there for each other without much planning.

I'll never forget the tears when my younger daughter drove me to the auto train station for my move to Florida.

"You always stressed family values first and foremost," said my daughter. "So, why are you doing this?"

I told her I wanted to spend what time I have left on this earth living an outdoor lifestyle, enjoying year-round summer.

I gained a wonderful lifestyle with that move. I truly feel like I am living in paradise. But I lost something precious - easy access to the family I love.

So each family visit becomes something special. This week is even more special because of all the quality time I'm getting to spend with my firstborn. It's been a long time since we could have so much uninterrupted one-on-one conversation.

Yes, we call each other often and try to share what's going on in our lives. But a telephone conversation just doesn't cut it when it comes to truly understanding each other's heart.

I remember complaining to my dad many years ago that he didn't know me anymore. "You know the little girl I was and you know the teenager I became. But you don't know the woman I am now because you're never here," I told him.

He took the conversation to heart and made it a point to vacation with me as often as he did with my brother. Because of that, we had so many close years that live on in happy memory.

I've said it so many times. The best gift we can give someone we love is presence, not presents.

I know. It's so much harder to give presence. If you're not nearby geographically, it's harder yet.

While I spend this incredible week with Maria, I feel like the Fool in the fable about gathering gold. When it rained gold, the Fool turned his umbrella upside down and filled it with gold.

While he was happy about the gold he had, he regretted that he couldn't have more.

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