I smiled before I turned around and answered, “Sure.” Making this request was the most humble I ever saw my dad. We had been through this routine for three years in a row, but I knew that this time would be the last. I handed my bowl of pie dough off to my little sister, grabbed my shoes, and went out to meet Dad on the driveway.
Dad headed the car towards the mall. Along the way we talked, but not too much. We talked about my life at college and my plans for the future, but sometimes he fell silent. I knew he was focusing on the task ahead of us.
During each of these yearly trips to the mall with Dad we went through every store that sold nice women’s clothes—every one. It was the only time I ever went to the really nice stores. Some stores would only take a minute or less—a quick walk-through and Dad would know that they didn’t have what he was looking for. In some stores we’d browse for a while. Sometimes he’d brush off the smiling sales ladies with the usual, “Thanks, but we’re just looking.” But in others he’d accept their help and take the time to describe how he was looking for something really wonderful. Sometimes he asked my advice about style, colors, or patterns, but other times he didn’t even hear the advice I volunteered because he was too focused on finding his special gift.
In the end, we always walked away from the mall with at least one plastic-covered hanger that hid Dad’s secret. Sometimes we came back with two or three hangers. Dad placed the loot carefully in the trunk, where it stayed until he snuck it into the living room late on Christmas Eve while Mom was getting ready for bed. Then, on Christmas morning, those plastic-covered department store hangers came into full view the moment Mom walked into the living room. She beamed at Dad, even before she opened them, and I think that smile made all the effort worth it for the both of us.
The last time I went Christmas shopping for my mom with Dad was the Christmas before I got engaged. I knew the engagement was coming and that we would be married within the year, so I also knew that it would be my last trip with Dad to find his special gift for Mom. I knew that the next year things would be different; my duties as consultant and companion to Dad on his special mission once a year would be passed to my younger sister. Imagining his request to her still warms my heart.
Maybe I’m not giving my dad enough credit, but I don’t think he engineered this activity as daddy-daughter bonding time to teach me how much he loved my mom on purpose. I think he just needed the company. It felt good that he wanted me for company, that he trusted me with his secrets and his desire to make Christmas special for his sweetheart. He didn’t do it on purpose, but Christmas shopping with Dad did teach me how much he loved my mom, and that knowledge helped me know, understand, and love Dad better.