THIS IS THE SEASON when newspapers feature beguiling ads with headlines trumpeting "Gifts mom loves" and "What mom really wants."
Choices and prices vary widely. How about a fancy watch? Lacy lingerie? Perfume and body lotion? Clothes? A crystal vase? A facial? A cellphone with 4,000 minutes a month? ("The perfect gift for mom.") A South Sea pearl necklace costing a cool $20,000?
They're all available, just waiting for doting sons and daughters and husbands to make a selection, plunk down some plastic, and say, "Gift-wrap it, please."
This Sunday, when these tokens of love are unwrapped, some will be instant hits. But for many recipients, the quiet little secret of Mother's Day is this: What Mom really wants is a gift no one can buy. It needs no wrapping, carries no price tag, and is, in fact, priceless: the gift of time.
Time to read a book. Time to take a long walk. Time to play with children or savor a leisurely lunch with friends. Even time just to think a rare commodity in a career-centered, consumer-oriented culture, where hours and days vaporize in a marathon of working and shopping.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh once described mothers as "the great vacationless class." They are, she said, "the only workers who do not have regular time off."
That observation, made nearly 50 years ago, has become even truer as women's lives have grown more complex. Even when women do get time off from the kitchen and laundry room, most never really take a break from thinking about their offspring, whether they're 6 months or 60 years old.
Talk about vacationless!
For some mothers, another unwrappable gift ranks high on their wish list: a clean house. In an informal poll on the ParentsTalk website this month, half of those responding say that's what they'd most like for Mother's Day. Seventeen percent would prefer flowers, while 12 percent want jewelry.
"For Mother's Day, I would love it if my children (and husband) would clean up after themselves and do their own laundry," says a respondent named Patty. She adds, "What a blessing that would be."
Husbands and children, are you listening?
Actually, some children are. In a similar poll on the KidsCom website, 44 percent agree that a clean house tops their mother's wish list.
"My mom would really like myself, my sisters, and my dad to help her cook dinner, clean the house, and just plain help her out," says 11-year-old Olivia. In New Zealand, 12-year-old Benjamin says his mother would like "peace and quiet from us noisy kids," plus "a good soak in the bath ... and no kids asking questions all the time."
For mothers whose nests emptied long ago, the best unwrappable Mother's Day gift might be companionship. To their far-flung children they say, simply and poignantly, "Your presence means more than any present."
In a consumer society, where attics and basements, closets and drawers bulge with a surfeit of stuff, a gift in a box can be a source of satisfaction or clutter.
As families and friends prepare to honor mothers on May 12, at least some have an opportunity to be creative. For them, there may be no better way to celebrate the day than by defying tradition, ignoring the siren call of ads, and giving the best gifts money can't buy: time, orderliness, companionship.
Christine, a Danish woman responding to the Internet poll, sums it up this way: "The simple things are the best gifts for Mother's Day a hug, a card, flowers, and the whole family home."
Others in "the great vacationless class" just might agree.