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tim cockey

All I want for Christmas

Are socks a heartfelt joy, or the dull gift from a frugal aunt?

VANESSA BRANTLEY NEWTON FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

She beams.

Each year, on Christmas morning, my sweetheart pulls from her stocking the same gift I gave her the year before, removes the wrapping, and turns a beatific smile my way.

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“Perfect. Thank you.”

They’re socks. Love her to bits, that’s what she wants. Socks. It’s not that she doesn’t appreciate other gifts — she does — but long ago she let it be known that all it really took to complete a satisfying Christmas morning would be the simple — and let it be said, heartfelt — gift of some new socks. Cute. Colorful. Kicky. A splash of whimsy peeking out from her shoes.

Now, I’d be delusional to think that nothing says “I love you” like a pair of polka-dot anklets. I’m aware it’s not every woman’s breathless wish.

But where I live, it’s all good. Even bargain socks. Buy four pair, get one pair free. My sweetheart is fine with that. How much simpler could it get? Love her to bits.

There was a time in my life when I too was the annual recipient of Christmas socks. But in this case there was nothing terribly “kicky” involved. I had an aunt — Aunt Socks, we’ll call her — one part sweet, one part cranky. All parts pragmatic. Each holiday season, my brother and I could depend on a gift from this aunt of quality soft footwear. Three pair each. Gray. Black. Mud brown. Oh joy.

She was a thrifty woman, my Aunt Socks. The wrapping paper she used every year for this high octane gift was noticeably roughed up and pre-crinkled, often revealing the rip marks of torn away Scotch tape. An early recycler, let’s just say.

My brother and I were expected to write thank-yous for our holiday gifts, and for whatever reason, I always took to the task of crafting mine with deadly earnestness. The more banal the present, the more determined I was to herald it as the gift of all gifts. I’m sometimes tempted to credit Aunt Socks for starting me on my path as a writer of fiction. Or more specifically, to credit the torturous elaborations of gratitude I felt compelled to concoct for my thank-you letters.

Dear Aunt ____, Guess what? My best friend has a pair of gray socks just like the ones you so kindly gave to me. Now we can be twins! I’m going to have a lot of fun with this thoughtful gift. Thank you very very much!

Dear Aunt ______, Thank you so much for the new socks. Just last week I was playing basketball in my stocking feet and I destroyed my last best pair of socks. Oops. How lucky for me to receive this thoughtful gift from you. Just in time!

Lies. All lies!

My brother, who by the way had already fixed on his life’s ambition to be a foreign-car mechanic, suffered no such need to grapple with the written word. His was always a 10-second effort: Thank you for the socks. Sincerely, Chris. Swift. Direct. Efficient. He’s a great mechanic, my brother. It was there from the start.

Of course, we all receive unwanted gifts from time to time. The years have not blotted my memory of the Christmas morning that one of my occasionally wicked step-sisters presented me with the gift of a box of various rocks she had collected from around our property. That’s right. A box of rocks. She had labeled each one as to its point of origin (the driveway; by the pond; near the mailbox) and arranged them among white tissue paper. I was too young and too naive to grasp the fact that this was not a thoughtful gift, but rather a decidedly spiteful one. So I thanked my sister for the “interesting” gift, and spent the next 20 minutes or so attempting to “play” with it, thus thoroughly, if unintentionally, confounding her wish to destroy my holiday moment.

But back to the present. And let’s let the pun stand. Today my sweetheart moves about with new kicky color on her feet. She’s happy with her gift, just as she was last year and the year before. My aunt is long gone from this world. But not her legacy. Her perfectly practical gift has seen an upgrade, to be sure. There’s a bit more zing. But . . . somebody is still giving socks every year. Just like my sweet and sour aunt. He’s even using last year’s wrapping paper. Just like he did the year before.

And somebody is still saying thank you for the effort.

Tim Cockey is the author of numerous novels, both sly and mysterious. He lives in New York City.
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