The man stood in the checkout line, holding onto the new bicycle as if it were a prize horse. From time to time, he caressed the blue machine gently, stroking the handlebars, patting the seat, running his fingers across the red reflectors on the pedals.

His pleasure, his delight, finally infected me. "It's a beautiful bike," I said to him, shifting my own bundles.

The man looked up sheepishly and explained. "It's for my son." Then he paused and, because I was a stranger, added, "I always wanted a bike like this when I was a kid."

"Yes," I smiled. "I'm sure he'll love it."

The man continued absent-mindedly handling his bicycle, and I looked around me in the Christmas line.

There were carts and carts full of presents. I wondered what was really in them, how many others were buying gifts they always wished for. How many of us always give what we want, or wanted, to receive?

I've done it myself, I know that. Consciously or not. I've made up for the small longings, the silly disappointments of my own childhood, with my daughter's. The doll with long, long, hair, the dog, the wooden dollhouse -- these were all absent from the holidays past.

I never told my parents when they missed the mark. How many of us did? I remember, sheepishly, the tin dollhouse, the parakeet, the doll with the "wrong" kind of hair.

Like most children, I was guilty about selfishness, about disappointment. I didn't know what gap might exist between what my parents wanted to give and what they could give . . . but I thought about it. I knew they cared and, so, even when it wasn't exactly right, I wanted to return something for my gift. I wanted to please my parents with my pleasure.

But standing in that line, I thought about what else is passed between people. Gifts that come from a warehouse of feelings rather than goods.

Maybe we assume other people want what we want, and try to deliver it. Maybe in every season we project from our needs; we gift-wrap what was lacking in our lives.

My parents, descendants of two volatile households, wanted to give us peace. They did. But I am conscious now of also giving my child the right to be angry. In the same way, I know parents who came from rigid households and busily provide now what they needed then: freedom. They don't always feels their children's ache for "structure."

I know others who grew up in poor households and now make money as a life-offering for their families. They don't understand when it isn't valued.

There are women so full of angry memories of childhood responsibilities that they can't comprehend their children's wish to help. There are men so busy making up for their fathers' disinterest that they can't recognize their sons' plea: lay off.

Every generation finds it hard sometimes to hear what our children need, to feel what they are missing, because our own childhood is still ringing in our ears.

It isn't just parents and children who miss this connection between giving and receiving. Husbands and wives, men and women, may also give what they want to get -- caretaking, security, attention -- and remain unsatisfied. Our most highly prized sacrifices may lie unused under family trees.

It's not that every package is mis-addressed. I don't think every gift should be labeled "Return to Sender."

There are people who truly "exchange." The lucky ones are in fine tune. The careful ones listen to each other. They trade lists. They learn to separate the "me" from the "you." They stop rubbing balm on other people to relieve their own sore spots.

Perhaps the man in line with me is lucky or careful. I saw him wheel his gift through the front door humming, smiling. For a moment, I wondered if his son hinted for a basketball or a book. This time, I hope he wanted what his father wanted for him.