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Ian Brown

A holiday story: The thought that counted Add to ...

He began his Christmas shopping on the first real day of winter that year. It was a Friday afternoon, and the wind was blowing stiffly across the glittering face of the high-end stores on Bloor Street in Toronto.

He was the sort of person who took Christmas shopping seriously, who thought about the presents he bought, tried to make the gift say something about the person to whom he gave it. He wasn't the sort who bought Scotch for all the men on his list and perfume for the women.

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He struggled through the stiff wind onto Yonge Street, and headed north to the cookbook store. It was always his first stop at Christmas: Most of the people he knew cooked, or at least liked to read about food. In any event, he was just harvesting ideas at this early stage in his Christmas routine. He had a notebook in the chest pocket of his three-quarter-length grey overcoat.

He stepped into the cookbook store and saw the bright volumes stacked on their shelves. He said hello to the shopkeeper, glanced at the rack of cooking magazines near the front door, and immediately thought: Maybe Mother would like a subscription to Cook's Magazine . Then he stopped himself.

His mother was dead. She had been dead since the fall.

How had he managed to forget that? The end of September, a Saturday morning, a phone call from his sister in Chicago, as he was preparing for a morning of chores: "Mother's had a heart attack. She's on her way to the hospital, can you go out to be with her?" The hour drive into the country, not hurrying (there wasn't any cause for alarm), the busy suburban hospital.

He knew she was gone from the way the nurse at the desk wouldn't meet his eye when he said who he was there to see. Then he spotted her behind a half-closed curtain at the back of the emergency department, lying on a gurney in the revival room, the blue-and-white tubes still sprouting from her mouth like an artificial bouquet.

He sat with her for over an hour before anyone else showed up, holding her hand, stroking her white hair. She had always been a fierce woman, and now she was unguarded. He had said more to her that morning in the first hours of her death than he had ever been able to say while she was alive.

"Can I help you?" the owner of the bookstore said.

"No, just looking for some ideas, thanks," he said, and smiled.

His mother had been a vigorous British country cook, an expert in the handmade, but her enthusiasm for cooking night after night had faded. She made the same dishes all her life, bought the same items on her weekly shopping trips, varying the list by no more than one thing a week - a new chocolate bar, perhaps a different brand of cracker.

Now she was gone. At least he didn't have to buy her a present - that was some consolation. She had always been a notorious pain in the ass to buy a Christmas present for. She was almost impossible to please.

She hated anything expensive, because it made her feel inadequate about her own handcrafted presents (jams, socks, keepsakes). At the same time, she despised any gift that displayed insufficient thought and attentiveness. You couldn't get away with a generic gift, not with her. And forget re-gifting. She possessed a radioactive alertness for the re-gift. God save you if she caught you.

He forced the memory of his mother out of his mind and turned his attention to the living on his list. He had given his wife a crockpot for her birthday (at her request, he reminded himself, remembering at the same time how his mother disdained any gift associated with a household chore), but she hadn't used it yet: Maybe a book of recipes would help? A bit impersonal, but a possibility. He made a note.

But everywhere he turned he saw titles his mother might have liked. It had been a late discovery, the food-related book as a possible Christmas present, but even then it was tricky. The Untold Story of Milk ? She had lived on a dairy farm as a girl, but never finished high school, and there would be too much science in milk history. So no, probably. Full English: A Journey Through the British and Their Food , by Tom Parker Bowles? No. Things on Toast ? Yes, he thought, that's perfect - then remembered, yet again, that he didn't need to buy her anything.

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