The Best Purchase I Ever Made

Madeleine's Surprise 40th Birthday at Pourquoi Pas
Madeleine’s eyes pop as her Aunt Eva makes a surprise appearance.

In the weeks before my wife, Madeleine, turned 40 in 1999, I decided I wanted to mark the occasion with a night she’d remember, so I invited many of her friends and relatives to a surprise dinner at a fine French restaurant, and I arranged for the place to shut its doors to regular customers so that we’d have it to ourselves. Somehow, though, that didn’t feel like enough; I wanted to do a little something extra.

On the night of the party—which I’d scheduled for the day before Madeleine’s birthday, to allay suspicions—my wife and I arrived at the restaurant, where I’d told her we were to have dinner with some of my colleagues from work. About two dozen of my wife’s favorite people appeared from the shadows to yell “happy birthday!” as we entered, and she broke into a big smile. As she told me later, though, she wasn’t entirely surprised; she’d suspected something might be up.

What she hadn’t expected, though, was what came next. After the room quieted down, I told the crowd, “We have one more little treat for Madeleine tonight: we’ve arranged for her Aunt Eva to call her from London to personally wish her a happy birthday.” I handed my wife a cordless phone so she could speak with the aunt who was as close to her as her mother had been; indeed, Eva had cared for my wife when she was 16, after Madeleine’s mother had died of leukemia.“Eva! Thank you for staying up so late there to talk with me,” Madeleine said, clearly delighted to hear her aunt’s voice.

I handed my wife a cordless phone so she could speak with the aunt who was as close to her as her mother had been.

“I didn’t want to miss the chance to wish you happy birthday,” said Eva. They spoke for a few more minutes and then Eva said, “I should let you get back to your party.”

Madeleine started to say goodbye and then—as she stood there, still talking into the receiver—Eva walked into the dining room. I’d secretly flown her in from London the day before and she’d made the phone call from a cellphone in the restaurant’s kitchen.

Madeleine—who throughout the conversation had been picturing Eva tucked under a cover in her second-floor bedroom in a London suburb—was astonished. In a photo I have of the moment, her eyes appear to be popping out of her head as she and Eva share a hug and happy tears.

Madeleine and I have now been married for nearly 22 years, and that embrace remains one of my happiest memories of our time together. I can’t think of any expenditure I’ve ever made that paid off better than Eva’s $309 airplane ticket.

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