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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: My wife and I are separated and in the process of getting a divorce. I have a 9-year-old stepson from this marriage whom I love very much. I'll call him "Nicky." We are very close, and I continue to see Nicky and participate in his life as much as I did before the separation. I'm the only father he has ever known.

The problem is my parents. They have refused to have anything to do with Nicky since the separation. They ignored his birthday and refuse to attend any of his ball games. They act like he no longer exists. Nicky is such a fine young man, and he is very hurt by their behavior.

Abby, since I can't change my parents, how can I explain their unkind behavior to Nicky in a way that won't hurt him any more than he's already been hurt? -- SON OF HARD-HEARTED PARENTS

DEAR SON: Be honest with your stepson. Explain that grown-ups do not always do the right thing, and you do not approve of your parents' behavior. Let him know that your parents are acting this way because they blame his mother for the divorce, and have withdrawn from him as a way of punishing her.

Remind Nicky that he has done nothing wrong, and this is not his fault. Assure him that you love him unconditionally.

DEAR ABBY: I've never written to you before, but I think you blew it in your answer to "In the Middle in Tucson." Her sister was so upset about the "tacky gifts" her daughter had received from their brother and his new wife that she severed the relationship with her own brother.

What is this world coming to when we are so shallow that we value gifts over our own flesh and blood? My advice to her would have been: "Lady, wake up! Tell your sister that life is too short to hold a grudge for something as trivial as what kind of a present someone gives."

The wife may not have been deliberately rude; perhaps she was trying to be thrifty. The brother may not even realize where the gifts came from (most men have little to do with gift-buying); maybe their family finances aren't in quite as good shape as she thinks they are. There could a lot of other "maybes" -- and the sister just doesn't realize it.

If something were to happen to her brother before she was able to make things right between the two of them, she would never forgive herself. If she doesn't like the gifts her daughter received from this auntie and uncle, she should shut her mouth and give them to someone who could really use them -- or simply throw them away. But don't destroy a relationship that is a God-given gift.

Abby, I don't mean this letter to be a put-down to you, but your answer seemed to encourage the sister to drive that wedge in more firmly. Family is far too precious to throw away because of something so meaningless. -- ALSO A SISTER IN NORTH CAROLINA

DEAR NORTH CAROLINA SISTER: You misunderstood my answer. The sister who severed the relationship with her brother deserves the lecture you gave her. However, my reply was directed at the OTHER sister, who wondered if she should try to mediate the dispute or stay mum. I told her to encourage her sister to communicate her feelings to her brother, so they could be dealt with in an adult manner.

Abby shares more of her favorite, easy-to-prepare recipes. To order, send a business-size, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby, More Favorite Recipes, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, Ill. 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

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