MY DEAREST HEATHER — My Dearest Heather- I know that I promised you a few years ago (I think it was when you hit 17) that I would stop writing these birthday letters to you. Grandfathers ought to keep their promises, but a 21st birthday is something very special, and it doesn't seem right simply to send a check inside a Snoopy card. Happy Birthday, my love. Consider yourself emancipated.
Come to think of it, you have been pretty well emancipated since the day you were born. Independent, that's my Heather! At 21 you're legally free to do anything permitted under the laws of Colorado, where you have become officially a citizen. Come 2004 you could run against Tim Wirth for the U.S. Senate. There's a thought for the day.
Once before I suggested to you a way for measuring the depth of love. It's not as accurate as measuring the depth of snow in Boulder, but it works. The depth of love, in my theory, depends upon the number of ''remember whens.'' More precisely, it depends upon the difference between the good remember-whens and the bad remember-whens. In a given relationship, if you have 50 goods and only 10 bads, you have a lovely thing going. Of course, the goods and bads aren't of equal value; they have to be weighted, but you get the idea.
Remember when you lived on Hawthorn Farm, in Rappahannock County, Virginia? That's where you grew up as a country girl. You developed a great affection for animals -- even for rabbits and groundhogs -- and you learned that black snakes are good snakes. You were insatiably curious. You still are, always asking why, and how come, and what for.
We remember you as a little girl, not much taller than our grand old collie Lorenzo, romping with him in the yard. I have a picture of you at 7, not quite the blond Dresden doll any more, putting on a few freckles. I especially remember when you were the pre-eminent cookie seller for the Girl Scouts of Rappahannock.
''How many boxes do you need to sell?'' I would ask.
What are grandfathers for? You came in first every year. I will never again eat a mint chocolate cookie without remembering Heather.
Remember your teaching Sunday School at Trinity? And singing in the choir? It was all part of country living. Remember the themes you had to write at Rappahannock High School? You never could spell much better than your Uncle Christopher, but there was a spark there. And I remember the summer when you went down to the University of Virginia for a couple of weeks at a writer's workshop. You thought about a career as a writer then. I hope you still think about it.
Oh, my dear love, there are so many good ''remember whens''! Remember when we went to Paris and London in 1987? We did all the tourist things. We took the boat ride on the Seine. (''The river stinks.'') We climbed a part of the Eiffel Tower. (''Neat.'') Until a reproachful guard stopped you in the Louvre, you were doing the museum barefoot.
In London we saw the crown jewels, which did not greatly impress. You were sufficiently emancipated even then to go solo to the Hard Rock Cafe, where you bought a T-shirt. You went to Stonehenge and stood in silence, a novel experience for you.
For the rest of your life you will remember the foreign-exchange students who came to live for a year in your house. There was Berit from Denmark, and the next year Daniel from Germany, and then Bella from Brazil, and you learned from them just as they learned from you.
We remember your high school graduation and seeing you off to N NTC the University of Colorado, and we remember how we reveled in your letters from the Netherlands during the year you lived with your adopted family there. You came back speaking fluent Dutch, and we teased you: What in the world can you do with fluent Dutch? Fly the Dutch airline.
Now you're flying off in September for another year abroad, this time as a student in Togo. Togo! What in the world can you do with a year in Togo? Polish your French? You could polish your French in France. But yes, you've been to France, and you've never been to Africa at all, and why not spend a year where nobody else spends a year? Togo it shall be. Pick up a little Bantu while you're there.
And again, my love, we will revel in your letters when you have time to write us. The good remember-whens keep piling up, and the love gets deeper all the time.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.