I Went Home To Surprise My Parents For Their Wedding Anniversary And All I Got Was Free Dinner And Emotional Fulfillment

Wedding anniversaries seem like they should be celebrated by the couple alone on a white sand beach or in a secluded mountain bungalow. My parents, however, aren’t the types for this kind of frivolity. They celebrate anniversaries with trips to ice cream stands and ordering Thai food in. And while these annual odes to their successful marriage are endearing in their own right, with this September marking 30 years, my siblings and I knew that something needed to be done. And because my parents’ main desire is to spend time with their three children, we were the just the people to do it.

My parents have never subscribed to cable for as long as they’ve been alive. My father’s basement television would make husbands with proper “man caves” openly weep. My mom unplugs the wireless router when she is done with the internet—and high speed internet was only a recent addition to the house, to appease our threat that we would never visit if we had to continue using dial up. My parents don’t care for stuff, but they do place a lot importance on spending time together as an entire family. It wasn’t hard to settle on a perfect gift: a surprise visit to our childhood home and a nice dinner on us. But if it was to be a surprise, as we knew it had to be, this deception would truly have to be well planned. 

My older sister Martha quickly made up bogus plans with her college friend Joanie who lives nearby. She informed my mom that she would be visiting Joanie and the two of them would swing by the house on Saturday around five to say hello. This was a good, solid plan, but for one thing: My parents often go to a beach about an hour from their house on Saturdays. What if they came home late or decided to stop for ice cream on the way back and ruined their appetites? Martha insisted that the promise of seeing their only daughter would surely bring them home in time for dinner, but I didn’t think we could risk it. If we were all going to make the effort to convene in a small rural town in Massachusetts to take my parents to dinner, we had to guarantee that my parents would be home and would be hungry. So we did something extremely controversial:

We involved my dad.

We knew my father would be happy to see us at home, but it was really my mom we wanted to surprise, as she has been the architect of so many family vacations, outings, and reunions over the years. Our dad was our fail safe, but we quickly realized we had perhaps scuttled our own plans by letting a man my mother knows every non-verbal cue of in on our scheme. We prayed he was more safe than fail.

I met up with my siblings last Saturday in Northampton, Mass., about an hour and fifteen minutes from our childhood home. Ted picked up my sister and me at the bus station. Within minutes it appeared that the surprise had been ruined. “Mom’s been texting me a lot about when I’ll be home, way more than normal,” my sister mentioned. If that wasn’t cause for alarm, my mom had also been texting my brother way more than usual, inquiring about his whereabouts, his workload, the status of his move. We concluded that she was testing him, looking for information.

The wheels were coming off. We brainstormed damage control. I offered to text her, offering up an incidental piece of information that would definitely place me in my adopted home of New York. We decided against that. It was too obvious. She birthed us and raised us—she knows our weaknesses.

But it wasn’t our weaknesses that we were truly worried about. My dad is good at keeping a secret, but he’s spent nearly every day of the past thirty years with my mother, a woman whose fine analytic skills are impressive in any situation, never mind in a relationship in which she’s had three decades of calibration. We knew that one strange pause from my father or an errant brushing of his forehead would be all the motive my mom would need to unearth this secret.

The drive was tense with our uncertainty. Pulling up to our childhood home, we didn’t know what to expect.

My sister got out of the car. Then my brother, then me. My mother is not a very dramatic person–she seemed surprised to be sure, but definitely not over-surprised. She wasn’t crying or anything. Since we made all this trouble to surprise my mom, it would have been nice to get a good validating cry out of it. We siblings never really discussed this openly, but I’m sure they’d concur. But during those initial moments, we allowed ourselves to believe that she was truly surprised. We had done it!

This reality frayed just minutes later when she offered us sodas—there were three chilling in the refrigerator. This stopped us cold. Why three? My parents never just leave sodas in the fridge. Sodas stay in the basement, only taken out to be chilled for guests. When we pressed her on this, my mother expertly explained two were for Martha and Joanie, and the third was for Joanie’s husband Brian. Martha pointed out that Brian was never going to come to Stow in her fake plan. Without missing a beat, my mom attributed this to her dutiful sense of just-in-case preparation. Were we really going to call her out on careful hospitality? We were not, but we were still keen on investigating if our surprise was truly genuine.

We took my parents to a nice restaurant (they drove). During dinner, my mom continually talked about how surprised she was, and my father continually touted his expert role as confidant. “I didn’t even tell her we should leave the beach early,” my father beamed in between bites of his organic Atlantic salmon. When the check finally rolled around, I coolly asked the waitress if we could get the check split in three. While this is par for the course in my check-splitting, hard-living lifestyle, it didn’t go over in Stow, Mass.—the waitress looked some combination confused and offended. She began to sputter when my mom quickly squashed any idea that we would pay for their anniversary dinner. Tepid protests from us kids with even more tepid bank accounts were useless as my mom handed over her credit card. That reminded her, she said, that she also wanted to pay for the buses we took to get back to Massachusetts, and the gas my brother used to drive us. That one we proudly declined, and my mother had to accept defeat. For my parents’ anniversary, we bought ourselves bus tickets and gasoline.

I guess we’ll never be quite certain what exactly my mother knew about our surprise, or why we were insistent that she knew all along. She did conveniently have a lot of our favorite foods to send back with us–maybe her motherly instincts were stronger than her desire to flawlessly play her role as surprised.

We have twenty years to plan something really surprising for their fiftieth, but somehow, no matter what we come up with, I think we’ll still get a free dinner out of it.


Matt Powers lives in New York. 



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