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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: My folks recently went on an extended "road trip" vacation. Whenever they've gone away before, they have stayed in the same hotel and we have had their telephone number.

This trip was different. They were going to take their time and stop where and when they wanted to. They were good about sending postcards, but not about calling and checking in with us. We never would have given this a second thought, except that my grandmother died while they were away and we had no way of informing them. They didn't find out about her passing until after the funeral.

Everyone felt terrible about this, especially my folks.

If this letter can help to open a few of your readers' eyes and spare them this heartache, it was worth writing. I know I will be calling home every few days when I'm vacationing from now on, because you never know what can happen. -- ST. PAUL, MINN.

DEAR ST. PAUL: The idea of taking off with no destination in mind might appeal to many. However, your letter highlights just one of the sobering realities that should be considered before deciding to do so.

The best policy is to leave a detailed itinerary with friends or family, or to make a point of checking in regularly. Your parents' experience was most unfortunate.

DEAR ABBY: You told "Amber in Sacramento" to ask the mother what she named her baby in order to find out whether the infant was a boy or a girl. I am a pediatrician, and believe me, you cannot always tell by the name.

I remember with amused embarrassment the first time an infant named Jamie was brought to my office. At that time, Jamie was a common name for a boy. I referred to the baby as "he," and Mom quickly corrected me with, "She's a girl." Thank goodness Mom didn't hold my error against me. I have remained friends with the parents of this girl over the years.

Current patients include girls named Tyler, Taylor and Cameron, two boys named Lynn, and two patients named Robin -- one girl, one boy. If I'm told the name is "Alex," I still have to find out if it's Alexander, Alexandra or Alexis. And when Mom says her baby's name is "Tony" (Tony and Toni sound the same), I don't immediately know if my patient is a female or a male.

Other names of my patients: Chadijha, Stormei, Scout, Travion, Chaymin and Taynaisha. Do you know which of these are girls and which are boys?

Abby, do you by chance remember the Johnny Cash song, "A Boy Named Sue"? While your advice would work in some cases, it's safer to ask the mother, "Is your adorable child a boy or a girl?" -- LEE BERNSTEIN, M.D., LAS VEGAS

DEAR DR. BERNSTEIN: You're right. The name is not always a foolproof guide to the gender of the infant.

"Abby" could be a boy or a girl -- as in Abbie Hoffman, or in my case, for Abigail.

I also concede that asking a direct question is the most intelligent solution.

P.S. Incidentally, Doctor, "Lee" can also be either gender.

CONFIDENTIAL TO "OVER 21 AND ALL GROWN UP IN ALBANY": Maturity is the ability to stick with a job until it's finished; to do a job without being supervised; to carry money without spending it; and to bear an injustice without wanting to get even. -- Abigail Van Buren

For Abby's favorite family recipes, send a long, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby, Cookbooklet No. 1, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, Ill. 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

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