When my sisters and I were young I remember one Christmas we all got together to choose a "birthstone ring" for my mom that we thought was so special. But she probably just wanted a week off from doing her 3 teenage girls' laundry or a day to sleep in each week! I'm sure we asked her what she wanted, but received the usual response: "I don't need anything, girls. Don't waste your money on me." So we went with what the ad agencies told us: "Any mom would be happy with...." (insert candles, perfumes, soaps, etc). I've learned a lot since then. Now, I ask her each year, and she asks for a pair of earrings -- and that exactly what I get her!
That's my tried and true approach. Asking! Surprises are nice on Christmas morning, but what if the mom hates the item every other day of the year and it ends up in the box headed to Goodwill?!! Ultimately the only way to choose the perfect gift is by asking. (Although, you may have to add a threat that if she isn't honest, her gift will be set of wrenches!) Seriously, moms are women, and who is the only person who will really know what she wants? She will. (Well, most will!) So ask!
While it's true that you can't generalize about material gifts, it's also true that no mom would turn down some time away, with or without Mr. Right by her side! Time to do whatever her heart desires: maybe read a waste-of-time-and-money magazine, get a massage, read a book, or SLEEP! Just some "time off" :-)
**This comes with a caveat: General categories are not allowed.
You can't let her just say JEWELRY, for instance. Either let her select it or give her a gift card with a memo line stating what it's for! For instance, I would not be pleased if my husband bought me a watch simply because I said JEWELRY and he saw a "Jareds" commercial! I don't want a watch that's picked out by someone else, and he bought me one the first year we were together (selected by me) and I LOVED it and STILL love it. I wouldn't want a new one! Other women I know just don't wear necklaces, or don't like a certain style of jewelry, etc. So be specific moms and hopefully, you'll get exactly what you asked for!!
And for the record, that article linked above was way off:
DON'T get ANY mom ANYTHING on the following list
unless she ASKS for it specifically:
Tools, Appliances (large or small), "Junk-of-the-month Club" subscriptions, Knick-knacks (aka dust-collectors), nor anything that requires more work or maintenance on her part ;-)