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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: My 36th birthday is coming, and I would like to do something exciting. I want to have fun with some of my close friends. I have celebrated with my husband and 9-year-old daughter for the past eight years. It's always the same. They buy me a cake, give me gifts and sing "Happy Birthday" -– and every year, I become more depressed because "like that," my birthday is over.

I need something more. How can I break this depressing cycle and explain to my husband and daughter that I prefer spending my birthday with friends? -– WANTING A HAPPIER BIRTHDAY

DEAR WANTING: Is there any reason why you can't do both -– have a family birthday and some special time with your friends? Many people celebrate their birthdays over a period of several days.

I can't help feeling something more is going on than you have revealed in your letter. You may be depressed, and not just on your birthday. See your physician and tell him or her how you feel. If you don't, I see trouble ahead.

DEAR ABBY: I have been invited to a "senior recital" for my next-door neighbor's daughter. The parents of this girl have reserved the auditorium at the school and invited friends and family to an hour-long presentation by her, followed by a reception.

My question: Is this a gift-giving occasion? Should I take flowers or what? I don't want to arrive empty-handed, but I'm in a quandary as to what exactly I should do.

Obviously this is a first for me, Abby. I like these people and want to do the right thing. Any suggestions would be appreciated. -– D.M.K. IN DELAWARE

DEAR D.M.K.: While being invited to a senior recital is not usually considered a gift-giving occasion, if you were to take something the girl could have as a keepsake, she would probably treasure it for the rest of her life. It needn't be anything expensive.

Another idea would be to unobtrusively take a photograph of her during her presentation, frame it, and give it to her as a memento.

DEAR ABBY: My wife and mother-in-law had surgeries on the same day in hospitals more than 100 miles apart. After my wife emerged from surgery, and I was assured that everything had gone well, I raced to the other hospital to see my mother-in-law.

When I reached her side, I could see she was close to death. I asked her if there was anything I could do. She raised an arm, pulled me close and whispered a compliment I will never forget. She said, "Dougie, I'm not a jealous person. If I were, I would be jealous of the life my daughter has had with you."

I kissed her wrinkled cheek, said goodbye and drove back to my wife. It was a sunny California day, but I had difficulty seeing through my tears.

My message to other sons-in-law is this: Instead of making fun of your mothers-in-law, tell them how much you love them. You might be surprised to find out they love you, too. -– "DOUGIE" SOMEWHERE IN CALIFORNIA

DEAR DOUGIE: Please accept my sympathy for the loss of your mother-in-law. She must have been a wonderful woman to have given you such a meaningful farewell gift. I hope others will take your letter to heart. It contains an important lesson.

Dear Abby is written by Pauline Phillips and daughter Jeanne Phillips.

For everything you need to know about wedding planning, order "How to Have a Lovely Wedding." Send a business-sized, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby, Wedding Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

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