I am faced with a particularly difficult Christmas gift decision this year.

This person lost her mother while still a child. Her mother was adventurous to the point of fearlessness (something this Marine appreciates) and died while engaged in an impromptu cliff ascent. Shortly after the funeral she was shipped to convent schools “back East” by her distant but class-conscious father.

She scraped out her mothering style from the good nuns she knew, but thankfully didn’t pick up on their institutional cooking methods. “It all goes to the same place anyway” was one of the sister’s common refrain. She cooked foods that ran counter to the 70s fondue revolution. She wouldn’t think twice about making Pollo en Pane; a whole chicken baked inside a giant loaf of French bread, and didn’t need recipes for most of her baking endeavors (an exact science, is baking).

She graduated with honors, then got a double masters in English and French and retained much of her liberal arts education well past the time when others would have flushed it.

Her practicality (a trait instilled by the Ursuline sisters) and intellect seem to tighten the scope of gift possibilities.

She spent her life outdoors, maintaining sections of the Appalachian Trail for a couple decades, and almost always tent camping in lieu of a hotel stay. She once dragged me up Mt Hood to the highest safe point you can get to without gear just to see how the plant life changed as you went up in altitude.

Oh, the plants! She had more wildflowers in her back yard rock garden than you could find in some botanical gardens. When it came time for a free elective, you could take botany and not leave her back yard for your sample collection, and your grade would destroy the curve for the poor sods in class with you.

But in all that, she never had the latest gear, preferring old well-worn equipment. That utilitarianism translated to the cars she owned. Until they stopped making them, she drove a VW Bus.

It was in one of these that she took her family, with children ranging in age from 9 to 15, on a two month trek around the country, camping the entire time. And it wasn’t just a Griswald style 5 second glance at the Grand Canyon. No, she hiked to the bottom of the canyon, and later stayed in the remote Chaco canyon and showed her kids how to make clay pottery like the Native Americans who built the adobe cliff dwellings there.

When there was a cave on the itinerary, the darkest depths were plumbed. When there was a hill or a mountain, the summit was reached. When the bus wouldn’t cut it, she would rent a jeep (like the WWII surplus jeep her brother taught her to drive when she was 12) and creep along cliff trails, waving at grizzlies and stopping to talk to the squatters in the ghost towns above Telluride, CO.

Later she finished her third masters, in social work, and worked difficult jobs helping people that wouldn’t always help themselves. After her children were all out of the house, she moved back to the Pacific Northwest, to Pendleton, OR, and helped the poor and underprivileged of that community.

Another move, this time to her childhood home of Eureka, CA, brought with it another underserved community and new friends and challenges. While there, she got another degree from the College of the Redwoods. This one was in fine furniture making, and with her most excellent set of tools, she made all sorts of furniture for herself and her family.

If you look at my incomplete description of her life (I left out her being the translator of 17th and 18th century French priests’ journals for the Canadian Catholic Church, her peripatetic solo travels, her musical gifts, her love of reading, her years on the Ski Patrol, or her time managing a Franciscan Friary) you see someone fiercely independent, multi-lingual (Latin, too), extremely vigorous, fearless, and not impressed by pointless frippery or gadgetry.

Seems like a difficult person to buy for.

But she is not. Sadly, her mind and memories have drifted, pulled away by that most vile of diseases, Alzheimers. She no longer comprehends the pages of the books as she reflexively turns them.

She still commands some of her vocabulary, however. If you visit, she is sure to ask you why she is being incarcerated. All her clothes are neatly packed in her big turquoise bag. This is the same bag she brought for her trek across Canada from BC to the Maritime Provinces. Now it sits by her door, a reminder that she aches to return to her life, even if she can’t remember where that life was or with whom she shared it. Her plaintive and repeated request, “But when can I go home?” tears at you for at least the first half hour of a visit.

Stacked up are the books I have mailed, unread, but neatly organized. On her bed she lays out the clothes she will wear the next day, to keep from unpacking everything.

And strewn around the rest of the room are the only things not neatly organized and ready to go: stuffed animals. Boxes of them.

The whole time you visit her she carries a big bear, bouncing it on her hip like she once bounced me. When we sit and try to talk, she puts it on her knee and strokes it soothingly. When my sister and I converse, I can see her whispering to it out of the corner of my eye. When, after an hour and a half (and dozens of reminders) she remembers who I am, it gets set aside momentarily.

But only for a moment, for the recognition passes, and the conversation reverts back to one between me and my sister. When it is time for me to leave I say goodbye, turn to my sister to say something, and when I turn back, just see my mother wandering away, back into the purgatory of silent, blank stares.

So I know what to get her for Christmas.

How easy it is to find a stuffed animal. They’re everywhere.

The difficulty isn’t in choosing what to get her. It will be in actually going out and buying a toddlers toy for my mother; for one of the most brilliant people I have known, for someone who could always hold up her end of a conversation. I will buy the master furniture maker, the woman with masters degrees from Boston College and NYU, the woman who knew her way around a chainsaw and a .22 rifle, the woman who took us to the rattlesnake infested wild blueberry fields of the Ramapo mountains every year to harvest gallons of those beautiful berries, the woman who held me when news of my father’s horrific death on USAir Flight 427 ripped out a piece of my soul, the woman who patiently listened to me recount every episode of the A-Team, scene by scene, the day after it first aired, the woman who gave me not only life but joie de vivre – I will give her a stuffed animal for Christmas.

It will be a plush cat, in part to represent the cats she always had, but mostly in the spirit of the hobo sign that a good woman lives there. Like her mother, whose house Great Depression hobos marked with a cat, my mother is a good woman, and that cat will hopefully let people know that a good woman lives in that shell of a body.

God bless her and keep her.

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