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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

My parents were funny when it came to presents. Over the years my gifts to them were hit and miss. I remember a scarf that I knit for Mom. I chose the softest yarn I could find in a beautiful shade of green, to create a lacy scarf with a leaf pattern. Mom thanked me for the gift but never once put the scarf on. Instead, she tucked it into the top drawer of her dresser, explaining that it was too beautiful to wear. Sometimes gifts were returned to me. “Dad will never wear this,” Mom said as she handed me a red polo shirt I had given to him. Small kitchen appliances I gifted thinking they would make my parents’ life easier also came back, citing the lack of storage space in their kitchen.

When my parents travelled from Sudbury to Ottawa for a few days to help me with my two young daughters while my husband Bryan was away on business, I wanted to show them how much I appreciated their visit. This time, I was sure I had come up with the perfect gift, one that they couldn’t just put in a drawer and forget about or return later.

Without letting Mom and Dad know, I bought tickets for a Cirque du Soleil show being staged only a few kilometres from my house. I planned all the logistics. Bryan would be home the night before they were to head home so we would eat supper together, and then drive them to and from the performance so that they wouldn’t have to worry about parking. All the pieces were falling into place.

I told Mom and Dad about my thank you gift and waited for their excitement and delight. Instead, they refused.

“But I already bought the tickets and worked out all the arrangements,” I protested.

“We think the outing is a great idea,” they said, “We just think that you and Bryan should go to the performance.”

They reasoned that the two of us should have a night out on our own. They would babysit. Dad would drop us off and pick us up again after the show. I insisted they go to the performance. They refused again, adamant that Bryan and I enjoy an evening to ourselves.

The performance, a spectacle of colour, music and athletic daring, thoroughly captivated us. But I was disappointed that Mom and Dad had missed out on the show, and irked that they had hijacked my plan to treat them.

Over the years I struggled to choose gifts for them. I eventually found presents that brought them joy (books or Belgian chocolates for Mom, Harveys Bristol Cream or a fancy tin of hard candy or mints for Dad) but I found these uninspired and mundane. I wished that I could give them something more meaningful.

Then I planned a trip with my daughters to visit my parents in Sudbury for a few days during the school break. Our visit would include St. Patrick’s Day. I was in our local grocery store picking up a few things the day before our drive when I spotted a small shamrock plant. While I’m not usually an impulse buyer, I couldn’t resist purchasing one of these charming plants. I was drawn to the long graceful stems ending in a cluster of three triangular-shaped leaves, each leaf a deep green with a contrasting burgundy underside, and the delicate white blooms. The price was a whopping $3.99.

The next day my daughters and I drove to Sudbury, the little shamrock plant tucked into a box, the pot secured with balled up newspaper to help insulate it. When we arrived I presented the plant to my parents without a lot of fuss, saying, “It’s St. Paddy’s Day tomorrow. I brought you a shamrock.”

Mom and Dad were enchanted.

They oohed and aahed, admired the dainty blooms and elegant leaves, and found a spot for the plant on a side table where they could enjoy its charms from both the living room and the dining room. Each day of my visit the blooms multiplied, to my parents’ ongoing glee. I was tickled that my cheap impulse buy gave them such pleasure.

That shamrock was the last gift that I gave them. The week of my March-break visit Dad found out that he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He died three weeks later. Mom died just 17 months after him. When it came time to clear out their house, the shamrock was still thriving and I took the plant home with me. I’ve had it now for over 11 years. It’s been repotted once or twice and I water it every couple of weeks. Each year on St. Patrick’s Day the blooms are just as spectacular as that first year. The shamrock plant sits in my living room and is a daily reminder to me that when it came to my parents and gifts, less was more, and that the most precious gift was the time we spent together.

Mary Gauvreau lives in Ottawa.

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