Love means never having to say: 'I've already got one'

With their 60th wedding anniversary approaching, my parents still make moon eyes at each other. They've been together since high school, and their love is so obvious it sometimes embarrasses their grandchildren.

Mom massages my father's feet as they watch TV. She reads aloud to him on car trips, and fluffs up his pillow every night. She goes on cruises because he loves the sea; she just makes sure she has a bestseller in her luggage.

Because he likes to go grocery shopping, she lets him. She knows he'll bring home at least 10 additional items, and three of them will always be a can of Dinty Moore beef stew, a bag of dried kidney beans, and a half-gallon of some bizarre ice cream - pineapple-blueberry, once. She even had a bowl, but just one. He ate the rest himself.

Humming "On the Sunny Side of the Street," she pulls him to his feet and says, "Bill, dance with me," and he does. The dog barks and jumps on them as they waltz past, and Dad twirls her in his arms.

My father, smiling beatifically, sits for hours in Nordstrom's shoe department while Mom tries on staid pumps and shiny black sling-backs. He smiles as he puts four pairs of new shoes into the trunk of their blue Taurus.

With white hair shining like cake icing, Mom emerges from her bedroom dressed in a polka-dot jump suit, cinched by a wide sash with an ornate silver buckle. My father tells her she looks "like a hot mama."

She smiles, very pleased with herself.

My father warms up the car for her in winter, grills steaks just the way she likes them, fixes homemade biscuits on Sunday mornings, and never misses an opportunity to tell her she's beautiful.

But he's never gotten the hang of buying her a Christmas present.

His habit is to slip away at 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve and go to Walgreen's. Coming home by 10 with rustling plastic bags, he stays up late waging war with wrapping paper, tape, and ribbon. Year after year, the same two presents appear under the Christmas tree for my mother: a Whitman's Sampler and a large bottle of Prince Matchiabelli perfume.

Mom always acts surprised as she unwraps them. Then she makes a special trip across the room to plant a kiss on his cheek.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, 50 years into their marriage, Dad hinted that he'd bought a special Christmas gift for his wife. I stared at him. My father, doing Christmas shopping in November? And he was so obviously pleased with himself.

On Christmas morning, I rooted round under the tree and found a huge package that looked like a coat box. I turned the tag over and read, "For my beloved wife" in my dad's scratchy handwriting. I shook it. No rattle.

Definitely not a Whitman's Sampler or a bottle of perfume in disguise.

I handed it to Mom. She looked at me with raised eyebrows. I shrugged, and we both looked at my father. He was about to pop.

"Open it. Open it," he urged, flapping his hands at her.

As Mom picked at the edges with her fingernail, being careful not to tear the paper, my father began squirming.

"Hurry up, hurry up," he said, bouncing a little in his chair.

"But dear, it's a big piece of paper. I can reuse it next year."

"I'll buy you all the wrapping paper you want, and more. Just open it," he begged.

Finally, she slipped the Santa Claus paper off, folded it in quarters, set it aside, and began to deal with the tape at the one end of the box.

My father couldn't contain himself. He leaped out of his chair and slit the tape with a rough movement that nearly ripped the top off the box. Then he thought better of his actions, handed it back to her, and sat down, chanting, "Come on, come on...."

Mom pulled back the tissue paper and lifted out a bathrobe. A pink, quilted bathrobe with a chain of daisies appliqued around the collar and across the top of the single pocket. She smiled and crooned, "Oh, Bill, dear...."

But she absolutely refused to meet my eyes.

I looked in my lap and bit my cheeks, trying to keep from laughing.

My father said: "The moment I saw that bathrobe, Mary, I knew it was made for you. I looked at it and thought, 'That bathrobe looks just like my Mary.' I didn't even check the price. I just found a salesclerk who looked about your height and weight and asked her to pick the right size. And I bought it."

I marveled even more at my mother's restraint: She never told him that the bathrobe he'd bought was identical to the one she'd been wearing every morning for the past five years.

She gave the old robe to Goodwill and wore the new one.

Now, that's love.

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