The perfect gift? Sometimes, it's in the eye of the receiver

Buying presents for my husband has never been easy. I’ve tried wardrobe updates, best-selling novels, even a stainless steel cappuccino maker, but I’ve never hit a gift home run. 

As the holidays approached, I would comb “best gifts for men” on the Internet. But what could possibly symbolize my devotion? More clothes? A pair of Ray-Bans? A new iPhone? I wanted to give him a present he would love.  

Then one day while he packed for a camping trip, I heard muttering and sighing coming from the garage. Our garage was a wasteland filled with bikes and trikes our three kids had outgrown, plastic containers of baby clothes I was too nostalgic to donate, and boxes of Kirkland napkins, utensils, and paper plates. Tools were littered amongst a single roller skate and a broom with a broken handle. Duffel bags of winter clothes and ski gear made it hard to walk without tripping.

The sleeping bags, flashlights, and camping stove were nowhere to be found. 

My husband looked dejected. The garage clearly spoke to him and I had a good idea what it said. If a well-ordered garage was a symbol of fatherly success, then ours screamed FAILURE!

I knew that wasn't true. My husband was devoted to our children and never missed a soccer game, choir concert, or karate tournament. He was famous for the inspirational (read: lengthy) “pep texts” he sent the kids in response to a difficult day, frustrating friend issue, or disappointing grade. But he judged himself by a different standard.

My husband grew up in a 1968 new-construction home in the hills of Encino. The house had four bedrooms, an eat-in kitchen, and an attached two-car garage. The garage was my father-in-law's man cave, before man caves were even a thing. 

The first time I came to L.A. to meet my then-boyfriend's parents, I walked into the garage and found his dad fixing something. His built-in workbench spanned six feet of the northern wall — hammers, wrenches, and screwdrivers hung in size order on brown pegboard above. I noticed the neatly stacked folding chairs, platters nestled on earthquake-secured shelves, and two cars tucked in side-by-side.

When my husband and I first moved in together, we lived in a New York City studio apartment. It had a loft bed and a fire escape. It didn’t come with garage space. 

But as our relationship blossomed, so did our housing situation.

With a baby and a second child on the way, we moved from New York to Los Angeles. Our new house had a white picket fence and a two-car garage. My husband’s man cave was only a matter of time.

Or so I thought.

Somehow, we never finished unpacking. Another kid was born. Birthday parties turned into Halloweens and Thanksgivings. Decorations traveled in and out of the garage. Sporting goods piled up in the rafters. Years went by. My dad lost his battle with cancer and my mom moved to L.A., too. In a weird twist, boxes of her mementos now filled our garage.

As my husband gave up the search for the camping gear, I remembered a time when I brought a cold soda into a hot garage as my father, in Lee jeans and a Kiss My Bass T- shirt, leaned over a red metal toolbox, his hands streaked black from the boat motor he was fixing. 

I also remembered a time when my father-in-law disappeared into his garage after I sideswiped my brand new minivan. He called me outside an hour later, the white scrapes magically erased by silver auto touch-up paint. 

I didn't know what memories my kids would have of their dad in our garage but I knew it mattered to him. I’d been racking my brain for the perfect gift and it was right in front of my nose — or at the end of the driveway. The one thing my husband had longed for all of our married life was a garage of his own. He was about to go camping for a week. That would give me just five days to make his garage dreams come true.

In preparation, I scoured Pinterest for fantasy garages. I ordered from Lowes, Home Depot, and Amazon, and — ironically — hid all the boxes in the garage until his departure. I booked a handyman. Our oldest daughter helped me measure. Our youngest selected the blue-gray paint. The day after my husband left, the crew arrived.

After three 100-degree days, two trips to the hardware store, and one emergency Ikea excursion, the garage was transformed.

Five bikes hung inside the garage door. Talon-shaped hooks held ladders, beach chairs, and boogie boards. Mementos were stored, paint cans discarded, tools rescued and sorted. And the pièce de résistance — spanning half the length of our garage was my husband’s sleek, black workbench. Our son sat atop it wrestling hooks into the brand new pegboard. My husband was due back just hours after the handyman affixed the rainbow sign our daughter had painted.

It read, “Dad’s Workshop.”

After hiking in the Sierras, my husband hadn’t taken a proper shower in a week. But the kids couldn’t wait. They followed our carefully laid out plan and told him to stand in the driveway as the garage door opened.

His scruffy face registered shock, bewilderment, amazement. “Who did this?” he stammered, staring at the organized rafter units. “Who did this?” he repeated, at the stainless steel tool drawer on casters. “Who did this?” he asked, his hand on his forehead, mouth agape, as his eyes fell on the painted walls, brand new shelving system, three royal blue stools lining the workbench. “Who did this?” My son and daughter went wild. My teenager filmed it all on her iPhone.

As we stood under the new lighting, I saw a flash of my father in a baseball cap. I looked over at my husband and was reminded of his dad smiling at me from a different driveway.

“Surprise!” I said. He looked so happy.  The garage wasn't important to me, but he was. This time, I scored a home run.

Robin Finn is a writer in L.A. Her first novel, "Restless in L.A." is forthcoming (InkSpell, February 2017). Visit her online at robinfinn.com.

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