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A mother's love is the best Christmas gift

By BILL MAXWELL
Published December 24, 2006


This is my first Christmas without my mother. Jeanette Maxwell died on Feb. 25. Her doctor said that she passed away quietly in her sleep. I was in Tuscaloosa, Ala., not at her bedside, which I always will regret.

Christmas was special for my siblings and me, because Jeanette believed in filling the house with music, food, love and affection. We did not share fancy emblems of egoism and materialism.

I do not pretend that Jeanette was perfect. She was not. She was slow to anger, but after she became angry her tongue would cut like a rapier. She did not believe in democracy. When she gave an order, that order was followed - no arguments, no questions. "Do it now," she would say like a Marine drill instructor.

But let us get back to Christmas in Jeanette's house. She never bought any of us expensive gifts. She was poor. She either was a farmworker, a maid or a short-order cook.

She hated what she referred to as "putting on airs" and "showing off" and "giving things just to look good." Our gift-giving method was simple: We pulled names out of a hat long before this practice became popular. We had to buy one gift that was needed or was clearly practical. Nothing frivolous. Whoever pulled my name, for example, always gave me one book.

Whoever pulled Jeanette's name had to buy something that would make housework easier or more pleasant. When I gave her a microwave oven in 1992, she was about to return it until I showed her all the neat things she could do with it. She kept it and used it every day.

My favorite gift ever was the bicycle I received the year my father left us. I was 9 years old. I had had my heart set on a sparkling new bike, with a hefty price tag, in the window of Western Auto in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Jeanette knew I wanted that bike. During the weeks before Christmas, I knew that she was up to something. On Christmas morning, I expected to see that new Western Auto bike.

Instead, my heart sank when I saw a turquoise monstrosity near the stove. It had three baskets, one on the handlebar and one on each side of the rear fender. Seeing my disappointment, Jeanette explained that she could not afford the store bike. She had given $5 to Mr. Dennis, the neighborhood handyman and scavenger, to cobble together a bike for me. At first, I hated the bike, a hulk of discarded parts and brush-streaked paint. My friends laughed at it.

A few weeks later, however, I grew to love that bike because I could use it in practical ways, such as grocery shopping for Jeanette. And because of that bike, I got a job as a carrier for the Fort Lauderdale News.

With our father gone, Jeanette designated me the "man of the house," and that old bike - my mother's simple and intelligent gift - gave me an independence that has stayed with me to this day.

Jeanette was not an educated person, but she had a profound sense of truth and appropriateness. Without having read Ralph Waldo Emerson, she clearly understood his transcendentalist's view of gift giving.

"Next to things of necessity, the rule for a gift ... is that we might convey to some person that which properly belonged to his character, and associated with him in thought," Emerson wrote more than a century ago. "But our tokens of compliment and love are for the most part barbarous. Rings and other jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only gift is a portion of thyself. ... Therefore the poet brings a poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a gem; the sailor, a coral and shells; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing. This is right and pleasing, for it restores society in so far to its primary basis, when a man's biography is conveyed in his gift ..."

Jeanette Maxwell's biography is conveyed in every gift she gave to her children. And she is her children's greatest gift.