EVERY YEAR on my birthday, from the time I turned 12, a white gardenia was delivered to my house in Bethesda, Md. No card or note came wiht it. Calls to the florist were always in vain -- it was a cash purchase. After a whole I stopped trying to discover the sender's identity and just delighted in the beauty and heady perfume of that one magical, perfect white flower nestled in soft pink tissue paper.

But I never stopped imagining who the anonymous giver might be. Some of my happiest moments were spent daydreaming about wonderful and exciting but shy or eccentric to make known his or her identity.

My mother contributed to these imaginings. She'd ask me if there was someone for whom I had done a special kindness who might be showing appreciaton. Perhaps the neighbor i'd help when she was unloading a car full of groceries. Or maybe it was the old man across the street whose mail I retrieved during the winter so he wouldn't have to venture down his icy steps. As a teen?ager, though, i had more fun speculating that it migh tbe a boy i had a crush on or one had noticed me even though I didn't know him.

When I was 17, a boy broke my heart. The night he called for me the last time, I cried myself to sleep. When I awoke in the morning, there was a message scribbled on my mirror in red lipstick:“Heartily know, when half?gods go, the gods arrive.”I thought about that quotation from Emerson for a long time, I left it where my mother had written it. When I finally went to get the glass cleaner, my mother knew everything was all right again.?I don't remember ever slamming my door in anger at her and shouting,“You just don't understand!”Because she did understand.

One month before my high-school graduation, my father died of a heart attack. My feelings ranged from grief to abandonment, fear and over-whelming anger that my dad was missing some of the msot important events in my life. I became completely uninterested in my upcoming graduation, the senior-class play and the prom. But my mother, in the midst of her own grief, would not hear of my skipping any of those things.

The day before my father died, my mother and I had gone shopping for a prom dress. We'd found a spectacular one, wiht yards of dotted swiss in red, white and blue. It made me feel like Scarlett O'Hara, but it was the wrong size. When my father died, I forgot the dress.

My mother didn't. The day before the prom, I found that dress-in the right size?draped majestically over the living?room sofa. It was presented to me -- beautifully, artistically, lovingly. I didn't care if I had a new dress or not. But my mother did.

She wanted her children to feel loved and lovable, creative and imaginative, imbued with a sense that there was magic in the world and beauty in the face of adversity. In truth, my mother wanted her children to see themselves much like the gardenia--lovely, strong and perfect--with an aura of magic and perhaps a bit of mystery.

My mother died ten days after I was married, I was 22. That was the year the gardenias stopped coming.