HOLIDAYS : He Shops, She Shops : Living up to the style of a mother whose gifts are perfect can lay a cloud over the season.


My mother's Christmas cheer hovers like a gray cloud, a shadow from which I might never emerge.

The woman is always thinking of the holidays. She called in February to announce that she had found the perfect gift for Aunt Sue. A summer trip through New Mexico yielded a trinket she is certain I will love.

"Have you finished your shopping?" she asked several weeks ago.

On this, the day after Thanksgiving, I have yet to begin.

The reason is clear: The suffocating abundance of her Yuletide spirit has left me seasonally dysfunctional. I am paralyzed by ghosts of Christmas past. Like the year when I was 14 and she not only gave me a coveted ticket to the Rose Bowl, but also arranged for me to go with the Stanford University marching band.

Or the year, much later, when she bought me an electric keyboard.

"I don't play the piano," I told her.

She shrugged. "Maybe you'll learn."

Eventually, I did. She knew I wanted to play music before I knew.

If her gifts were not always splendid, they were always plentiful. The Christmas mornings of my childhood brought dozens of carefully wrapped boxes under the tree, some containing items that I already owned. I would open a present only to find a paperweight that had been missing from my desk for a month.

"This is mine."

"I know," she would say. "I just think people should get as many presents as possible."

Is it any surprise the holidays bring me dread? I am haunted by the certainty that I will never be as adept at Christmas as she is. I will never live up to her legacy. So many names on my list, so much pressure. I envision Christmas morning, loved ones unwrapping the presents I have chosen for them, expectant smiles dissolving.

"And his mother is such a wonderful gift-giver," they will muse.

My predicament approaches the state of victimization.

First comes denial, the rationalization that 29 shopping days still separate me from my Gargantuan task. Days tick by. Anger sets in, hackneyed ranting and raving about the undue commercialization of a blessed event. Finally depression arrives, leaving only a thin hope that if I wait until the last-minute, panic will inspire me.

But it will no doubt end the way it always ends. I will take my place among loathsome creatures who retreat to the bland comfort of the shopping mall and paw through crowded shops, placing faith in a combination of desperation and high-visibility retail.

My gifts will be serviceable but not inventive: A butter dish in the shape of a turkey. A wind chime or semi-intriguing garden ornament. A picture book for my grandparents: "Above the Grand Canyon" or "Beneath the Pacific."

I have a theory that grandparents own picture books only because they have lived so long and accumulated so many possessions that no one can think of anything else to give them. No one, that is, except my mother. Two years ago, she gave my grandmother a quilt-making kit, which provided my grandmother with a rewarding hobby and the rest of us with handmade quilts the following year.

I can see Mom now, wrapping a Hopi Indian blanket she found for next to nothing at a garage sale last spring. It will look perfect on the wall of my brother's den. She has no doubt received, by mail order, a rare edition of "The Scottish Gardening Companion" that Cousin Vickie will treasure for years to come.

I should seek help.

Perhaps the Home Shopping Club offers a 12-step program. But the thought of becoming dependent on Tootie terrifies me. I should have visited shopping malls in August, not actually buying but browsing, taking notes. Is it too late?

There are plenty of qualified and eager salespeople waiting to assist me, I tell myself. And, after all, it is the thought that counts. With each purchase, I might chant: "This gift is good enough, it's smart enough and, doggone it, people like it."

But as December approaches, as the Salvation Army rings damnation from every store entrance, my procrastination shows signs of settling into rigor mortis. I am considering religions that do not celebrate the birth of Christ.

And a Christmas gift from my mother has come in the mail. It sits on the dining-room table, a leering presence. I cannot bring myself to strip away its brown packaging to reveal the cheery wrapping paper she no doubt purchased at half-price last January.

She called the other day to make sure it arrived safely.

"I've been thinking that your grandfather might like country music if he gave it a listen. Something like the new Willie Nelson album," she said. "Have you gotten anything for him yet?"

How she mocks me.

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