For several years now Iíve talked about simplifying my gift-giving, buying fewer pieces of plastic and providing more memories. And each year, I stumble and fall back into that great feeling of having piles of presents to open. I doubt I find that perfect balance this Christmas either, but a book out by Susan Mullally [...]

For several years now Iíve talked about simplifying my gift-giving, buying fewer pieces of plastic and providing more memories. And each year, I stumble and fall back into that great feeling of having piles of presents to open.

I doubt I find that perfect balance this Christmas either, but a book out by Susan Mullally has me thinking Ė in a new way Ė about the gifts I give and their meaningfulness. Mullally is an assistant professor of art at Baylor University and she spent three years photographing people who are homeless, or on the edge of homelessness, with an item they treasure, an item theyíve kept with them through lifeís upsets.

There, under a bridge, stands a former plumber holding a wheat-back penny from 1945, the year his mother was born. A man with four college degrees poses with his chess and backgammon set. A retired cosmetologist proudly shows her great-grandmotherís antique 7UP bottle.

I read the book, ďWhat I Keep: Photographs of the New Face of Homelessness and PovertyĒ ($34.95, Baylor University Press), in one short sitting. Iíd look first at the portrait and then read the short interview. With the turn of each page, I wondered what item I would have chosen for my portrait, and I wondered if I had ever given anything of real value.

Am I the kind of mother whose son will remember her birth year and treasure our relationship? Are any of the gifts Iíll be wrapping destined to be remembered years from now, or will they be donated to charity before I pull out the lights and the tinsel next year?

Usually Mullallyís photographs are printed so large that itís as if the people in the pictures are standing next to you. I can only imagine how powerful those art exhibits are when you stand eye to eye with veterans, cancer patients, former air traffic controllers and recovering drug addicts. People who probably had lives full of stuff at one time. People who have had to make that choice of what to carry with them and what to leave behind.

I think Iíll take another look at my gift list.