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Ian Brown

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

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.

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?

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