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The lilacs bloomed last week, reminding me it was time to send Mother's Day cards to my sons.

I guess it's more accurate to describe them as Mother's Day letters, these scribbled notes I send to my sons each year at this time.

It's not traditional, I know. Mothers are supposed to receive cards from their children, not send them, on Mother's Day.

But for some reason, I've always thought of Mother's Day not as a time to expect some kind of special treatment from the sons but as a time to let them know how profoundly grateful I am for their existence. And how I can't imagine life without them.

Of course, you have to be careful about writing down this kind of stuff. You don't want to embarrass your kids. And you don't want to embarrass yourself.

So you don't really tell them of your profound gratitude and that you can't imagine life without them. You write instead of how wonderful the Christmas visit was and how pleased you are at the way their lives are going and how you can't wait to see them again in the summer.

You write such things to your sons and hope they read between the lines. And over the lines. And under the lines.

But sometimes on a spring day such as this -- a day when the white dogwoods and purple lilacs explode with color outside the kitchen window -- I find myself composing a letter in my head.

It's a letter to my sons that will never be written. But if it were, it would go something like this:

Not so many years ago I stood and watched the two of you playing from this window. And if I close my eyes now I see you still: Two boys -- one dark-haired, the other fair -- intent on wringing out every minute of the light before darkness sent you indoors.

One of you was always doing something with a ball: bouncing it off steps or shooting hoops or throwing it at someone's bat.

And one of you was always looking up at the sky, consulting your charts and maps and getting your telescope ready for the starry night watch that fascinated you.

Do you remember the long walks you took with your grandmother when you were little? I do.

What I remember best is how each of you always presented me with a small bunch of wildflowers when you came home: delicate Queen Anne's lace and blue cornflowers and occasionally a Mexican rose that had forced its way through the sidewalk cracks.

It's funny, but I always loved the fact that you were, and are, so very different in the way you see the world.

One so trusting, the other so questioning. One so neat, the other not so neat. One who loved the camaraderie of team sports, of baseball and basketball. And one who sought out the solitary challenges of mountain climbing and skiing.

But you shared, and still share, a common thread that weaves in and out of whatever it is we call the essence of a person: a wonderfully funny -- and surprisingly comforting -- sense of humor.

Another thing: I'll never forget and always will treasure the memory of how kind you both were to your grandmother -- my mother -- when she was dying.

You were teen-age boys at the time with an agenda that included all the turmoil that accompanies adolescence. And yet you were there when it counted for your grandmother.

I like to think -- no, actually I know it to be true -- that because of you her death was not a lonely one.

One of you once asked me why life was so hard sometimes and so easy at other times. I didn't know the answer then, and I don't know it now.

But I have watched each of you live through both hard and easy times. And although it was often a mighty struggle to get through the hard times, you got through them. Without compromising your essential decency.

From you I have learned many things, the most important of which is: It is possible to love another human being without placing conditions on the relationship.

I've heard that in China there is a saying, "May you live in interesting times." I've never been sure whether it's meant as a curse or a benediction for a good life.

But my experience as a mother leads me to believe that if you really want to wish a person well you might say: May you live with interesting people. As I have with you.

Of course, this is not the letter I wrote to my sons. Instead, I scribbled a few lines about home and the cats and how I can't wait to see the sons again.

But this time I also placed a sprig of lilac inside each envelope.

And sometime today, with great pleasure, I will imagine my faraway sons opening the envelopes. And I will imagine their surprise as the scent of lilac jumps out, like a genie from a bottle, to remind them of home.

Of home and, I hope, of me.

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