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A holiday story: The thought that counted

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

He bought a calendar of 1950s kitchen advertisements for his wife's stocking instead, buttoned his coat and left the store. He swung sharply to the right and almost collided with a young woman on her cellphone. She was dressed for the evening in high boots, dark tights and the kind of thigh-length bell coat that was all the rage this season. Impossibly pretty. She looked like a walking Christmas ornament.

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He made his way back to Bloor, past Talbots, toward the beckoning warmth of Holt Renfrew. When his mother was alive, he always cruised through Talbots, a store for conservative middle-aged women, not that it ever yielded anything. That black-and-red tweed jacket in the window, for instance - that would have been too chic for her.

Holt Renfrew wasn't any more helpful, but at least at Holt's he could fall back on a well-known brand: gloves, a scarf (though she had dozens), something luxurious she wouldn't have bought for herself. The doorman swung the plate glass open, and a wave of perfume and chatter and Christmas music (Sinatra) rolled over him. Women in fur coats were crowded around the makeup tables at the front of the store, having their faces done.

The truth was, he had spent every Christmas of his life while she was alive racking his brain for an appropriate present, almost always unsuccessfully. The stand-up Kitchen-Aid mixer (returned, unnecessary); the rabbit earmuffs (returned, inappropriate); the headphones he had bought her when he was 16 ("this is a present for yourself, not me," she snorted scornfully, whereupon the story of the inappropriate headphones entered the family lore, to be repeated annually).

Then there was the red fox fur coat he and his brother bought together, a present that made her burst into tears and say, "This is too much!" as her fingers lingered in the fur still folded in its box. Whereupon she ran upstairs to bed and didn't come down for the rest of the day - on Christmas Day! Buying his mother a present was like playing with live ammo. The terry-cloth, mail-order dressing gown that never fit properly. Books she never read.

He could count his successes on the fingers of one hand. A climbing rose (but that was for her birthday, not Christmas). A miniature silver watering can. And, at the age of 24, shortly after he landed his first job and a regular salary, a mauve silk blouse with maroon stripes, in a size 16, for $60. She found it slimming and wore it for 10 years. The blouse, in fact, he realized with a start, was one reason he still came to Holt's every Christmas.

For his wife, he was thinking of a pair of vintage earrings. "Can you tell me, please, how much those are?" he said to the tall girl behind the vintage counter. She was in her 20s, had long Botticellian blond hair, and was preoccupied with her cellphone. The older sales women tried harder.

"Those are $850," the young woman said, as easily as she might have said, "Look how late it is!" He felt the old collapse: Everything he liked most was more than he could afford. "Topaz earrings in rhodium-plated silver, very luxurious." The words spilled out of her mouth like water running down granite. She was so young, she looked like she might never die.

On his way out of the store, he detoured through the fine foods department. He spotted a tin of Lyle's black treacle - now, that was something he might have bought for his mother. But not the tinned Christmas puddings; she would have skinned him alive for such a gift. She made her own, aging them a year in the recesses of her fridge, the pudding in the same pudding bowl she had used for decades, tied shut with string and a white, cloth napkin.

Then he remembered the Christmas pudding made by his mother's mother that had languished for 10 years after her death. Would he take that long to put his own mother aside? To finally digest the memory of her?

Outside the store, he slipped his hands into his overcoat pockets and felt the familiar knot of his keys. The pewter fob on his key ring - a gift from his mother. She was everywhere.

He crossed the street to Ashley's, the china shop, the last stop on his annual Christmas circuit in the upscale part of town. It was well past 5 now, and darkness was overtaking the short December day, leaving the city less forgiving.

He stood in front of the store's windows, perusing household wares: sumptuous plates and table settings, silver candy dishes with stems shaped like twigs, Lalique glass plates embedded with white Xs, gifts popping in and out of boxes mechanically, nickel-plated kettles, all under a banner strung across the window: "Gifts they will love forever!"

Not strictly true, he thought. His mother's voice came to him suddenly: "I hate cooking." Her forceful Suffolk accent, teetering on the edge of impatience. It wasn't so much that he missed her presence, as that her absence had become physical; there was now a space in space, the hole her departure had left in the continuum.

"What are you gonna get?" An old woman was gazing into the window beside him. She was short, and carrying a cane. His mother had refused, despite her bad legs.

"I don't know," he said. "Maybe one of those West Bend Penguin ice buckets. My parents had one."

"So did mine. Don't know what happened to it."

He followed her into the store and made a quick tour. Nothing. He thought Kate Spade had designed a knockoff (Library Lane Navy, it was called) of his mother's best china - the Minton Golden Heritage pattern plates and saucers and gravy boats that came out at Christmas with the salt cellars and the heavily wrought after-dinner-mint dishes and the matched set of 19th-century cutlery his mother had picked up at an auction. The plates she stored and protected, with their pale white centres and navy and gold rims. The good china, her yearning displayed. Where was it now? One of his sisters had it, probably. That was fair enough.

Then he saw it: a silver toast rack. He could buy his daughter a toast rack for her early-morning breakfasts before school - one like that, like his mother's sterling toast rack, the small peaked church she set out for breakfast every morning for 50 years. Just an object - but objects were all he had of her now, to hold on to in her place.

He wrote "Toast rack (H)" in his notebook, and stepped outdoors again into the now stiffer, colder wind. The H&M outlet next to Ashley's was a shock, with its tiny red bras stretched around wire mannequins in the window - bras for teenagers, really. Deeper into the store, a parade of gold bubble skirts and glittering accessories all proclaimed, "Look at me! I'm new!"

Whereas next door at Stollery's, the old-guard store, the green, loden-cloth cloaks and red, quilted Barbour gardening jackets said, "I, on the other hand, have been here a long, long time." For $395, no less. She might have worn one of those.

He pushed past them both, their insides lit and beckoning, and steered for home. The living desire of the world was all around him. For the flash of a moment, he saw her white hair again, falling back from her forehead, pale and untended.

He crossed the street quickly between two sets of traffic lights, dodging cars; he wasn't really crying, it was just the bitter of the oncoming cold. Snow was definitely on its way.

Ian Brown is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

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