Holiday Issue: The Gift

A Lack of Spark: Andrew Hudgins on a meaningful Christmas gift

(Chris Hartlove)
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By Andrew Hudgins
Sunday, November 22, 2009

"Shoot!" I said, or something like it, and smacked the steering wheel with my palm.

"What?" Tom asked. It was 8:45 on Christmas Eve, and I was driving him back to his parents' house after a movie out on the Air Force base where both our fathers were stationed.

"I still have to get a Christmas present for my mom." Ø "Uh, oh. That's not good."

"I know it's not good," I said, but I also knew that after the 50-cent movie, I had a single buck in my wallet and a handful of change in my right pocket. I had also wantonly and guiltily wasted a quarter on a box of popcorn.

I whipped the car off the bypass and into Bellas Hess, a discount store my mother liked. Jogging around the nearly deserted store, dodging a few lingering customers watched over by irritated clerks eager to close out their registers and hurry home to their own Christmas Eves, I had no illusions about getting my mother something thoughtful. All I wanted was something that wouldn't make her mad, something that would discharge my filial obligation.

Clothes I didn't even consider. Candles? Women were supposed to like candles, weren't they? But we had a few dusty candles around the house that I'd never seen lit. What in the world could a 17-year-old boy buy for his mother? Candy would do, but I couldn't even get a bag of Hershey's kisses for a buck and a couple of nickels.

Until I was in high school, I hadn't had to buy a gift for my mother. Each year, Dad simply stuck something under the tree with "From the Boys" scrawled on the tag. My brothers and I were never consulted, and unless we asked, were not told what we were giving. On Christmas morning, I was curious to find out what I had given Mom, and then I felt deceitful when she hugged my brothers and me one by one and said she loved the Whitman's Sampler, the bottle of semi-cheap perfume, the sleeveless golf blouse she'd probably told dad to buy for her, or, more than once, two cartons of Pall Malls.

But now I was responsible for getting her present myself. I'd started the evening fretting about it and then forgotten.

The overhead lights at Bellas Hess flicked on and off. The loudspeakers announced it was five minutes past closing. I had one minute before the registers closed. I snatched up and bought the one thing I could afford that I thought was barely passable as a gift for a grown woman.

The manager, standing at the door, unlocked it so I could leave, and Tom, who had spent the last 20 minutes rooting through the record bins, was outside, waiting.

"What'd you get?"

I held out the box, the cheap cardboard freckled with bits of bark. Inside, swathed in long shreds of paper from an Asian newspaper, were salt and pepper shakers shaped like light bulbs. The faux threads of the light bulb screwed off so the salt and pepper could be poured into the thick, wavery glass.

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