36: The Gift Horse’s Mouth

36: The Gift Horse’s Mouth

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive

The Gift Horse’s Mouth

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.


My most prized possession is nothing special to look at. It’s not flashy or expensive, or the latest model. Though it’s over twenty years old and has managed to survive a lot of wear and tear, it’s not an antique. There are black scuffmarks on its sides, some unidentifiable stains on the threadbare gray carpet, and the seats are frayed and ripped, held together with duct tape. Last year the engine gave out and we had to spend our first summer landlocked. We’ll never do that again; we all agreed it was too depressing.

Can you picture it? Have you guessed what it is yet?

The Bayliner appeared in our lives through an odd series of coincidences. Out of the blue my father — who rarely gives gifts, and almost never gives useful ones — mailed us some shares of tobacco company stock. Though the stock was doing extremely well financially, I didn’t want it because of the moral dilemma it represented. For years I breathed my dad’s secondhand smoke, watched my friends try unsuccessfully to give up cigarettes, and was disgusted by people who used our favorite parks and beaches as their personal ashtrays. I disliked tobacco companies on principle. My father knew this and was purposefully setting up a situation where my ethics would be forced to clash with our growing family’s chronic need for money.

This realization got under my skin and I found myself stewing about what to do for several days. Turning the various possibilities over in my mind like the pieces of a Rubik’s Cube, I kept hoping that eventually I’d come up with an answer that would allow me to accept the gift while still being able to look at myself in the mirror every morning.

There really is such a thing as serendipity. One day, my husband’s co-worker happened to mention that he had just bought a new camper. His wife wanted him to sell their boat because she hated the water and was afraid to take their four-year-old daughter boating. In his usual impulsive way, Neil arranged for us to all meet him at the boat launch and take his boat for a test drive.

It was a hazy, hot, and humid summer evening when Neil and I drove our three toddlers to the lake, zipped the boys into their life jackets, and cruised slowly out of the marina. Drifting at a leisurely pace along the shoreline, I gazed at the setting sun, a red fireball over the horizon, and inhaled the smells of barbecues and campfires at the summer cottages. I heard the ducks calling to each other as they skimmed over the water and felt the throb of the engine as it cut through the wakes of passing boats.

I felt at peace, as if I had come home. I had forgotten how passionately I’d always loved everything associated with the water and how much I’d always wanted a boat of my own. We had never had one growing up. My parents shared an equal dislike of recreational water sports and doing things as a family, so my sister and I were forced to rely on the generosity of friends and neighbors to access the seafaring life we craved.

As the warm wind lifted the hair off the back of my neck, I felt like that fourteen-year-old girl again. I had to have this boat or I would sink into a deep depression. In a sudden flash of insight, I understood that if this boat were ours we would never, ever be like my family was; the boat wouldn’t let us be. I motioned to my husband to cut the engine and we drifted to a stop. Amidst the kids complaining and begging us to go faster, I shouted, “I want this boat!”

His eyes widened and he stared at me, speechless. For years I had been the one who put the brakes on our expenditures, the practical mother who monitored all purchases and finances with an iron fist. He wasn’t sure how to respond, and for once I didn’t push him for a quick answer. We sat in a silence fraught with unspoken meaning.

Finally he asked, “How would we pay for it?”

“We’ll sell the stock!” I declared joyfully, realizing as I said it out loud that the perfect solution I’d been searching for all week had just been revealed. Finally my dad, unbeknownst to him, would be giving me something that our family really wanted, a gift that could be the vehicle for creating many fond memories over the coming years, a rare commodity in my own childhood. The emotional weight that I’d been carrying around since receiving the stock magically lifted and my mind began to soar with the endless stream of possibilities that owning a boat would give us.

Looking at my three little boys, their eyes filled with excitement and longing, my heart overflowed. “Do you really want to buy this boat?” I asked, and their gleeful cheers made us laugh out loud.

The next morning we sold the tobacco stock and bought the boat. Psychologists call this a “corrective experience,” which means taking a difficult, painful memory and recreating it, this time with a positive outcome. Every time we go waterskiing or tubing with our friends, each weekend that we trailer our boat to explore a new lake or waterway, or whenever we take the boat out at night to watch colorful 4th of July fireworks explode over the water, our family constructs a happy memory to replace one of my sorrowful or depressing ones. Our boat has been the source of many unusual adventures including a brand new remote-controlled airplane, our yearly trek to Frontenac Island, a family we saved from drowning, and a gold Italian bracelet that was almost lost forever.

Whenever times are tough, money is tight, or cold winds howl outside, all I have to do is close my eyes and imagine driving our boat to the middle of the lake on a hot summer day and jumping into the cool clear water. I instantly feel better.

The night before my oldest son moved to Michigan, I asked him what he would miss the most when he was gone. Not even hesitating, he replied, “The boat.” And that’s why this boat, my first but hopefully not my last, will always be my most prized possession. It allowed me to transform the cigarette money, profits earned at the expense of people’s health and the environment, into the rock solid foundation on which I built the home I’d always wanted, proving once again that you should never, ever look a gift horse in the mouth.

~Sue Henninger

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