My mother died a year and a half ago. We were very close. My only daughter, almost 6, was also very close to her. Although she saw my mother only three to four times a year, they talked on the telephone at least once a week, and the time they did spend together was truly quality time. As a result, my daughter still talks of my mother fondly and frequently. I would like very much to help my daughter keep her memory alive.

Before my mother died, she wrote a rather lengthy letter to her, to be read some time in the future. The letter talked about her heritage and the hopes my mother had for her as she grew and matured.

This letter is terribly important to me and I want it to have an impact on my daughter. My question: When should the letter be given or read to her?

I am torn between reading it to her before all memory of my mother disappears or letting her read it when she is old enough to really understand it.

Don't wait. Your daughter won't absorb the full contents of the letter for years. But it will help her remember her grandmother, the way she used words and the cadence she gave them. And it will help her fix earlier recollections. Even though many of them will one day be memories of memories, they will add to her heritage.

Reading the letter periodically also will give her the sense that someone else is watching over her -- a special guardian angel if you will. That will add to her self-assurance.

The letter also will draw three generations closer than ever. Bonding is a continuing process. When you read the letter together, you will tighten the bond with your daughter just as your mother was tightening her bond with her grandchild when she wrote it.

The letter is a summation of all your mother had tried to teach you and she wouldn't have written it if she hadn't been pleased with the way you had followed her precepts as you matured. Reading the letter will strengthen these values in you and in your daughter. You may think they are imbued in your conscience forever, but we are all liable, at any age, to stray from the track. Her words will make you stronger.

The only warning is to remember that the letter is a memento of your mother's life -- not her death. You want to reach for it with expectation and pleasure, the way you greeted her phone calls, and not read it in a morbid or theatrical atmosphere.

Introduce it on a special day -- the day before your child's birthday perhaps, or the first day of school. And give yourselves time to look at pictures of you and your mother, when you were a little girl. Read the letter, or parts of it, to your daughter several times a year, or about as often as she and your mother saw each other. This will help your child incorporate her grandmother's advice into her life, if you explain it so she can understand it.

You can give her a photocopy to read on her own when she nears her teens, but keep the original until she's grown and settled into a place of her own -- and then you can keep a copy.

The letter will probably always be more important to you than to your child -- especially now, for you seem to be grieving still. That's normal. No matter how old you are, part of you is always a child.

The death of a parent can leave a grown, stable, rational adult with reactions that last long after the initial shock has passed and after the terrible breath-catching weight of grief has lifted. Sadness is an inevitable part of mourning, but if it should turn into a what-does-it-all-matter mood, or into overwhelming fatigue (both signs of depression), or if the natural anger that comes with grief goes on too long, a few sessions with a grief counselor would be helpful. When Parents Die, by Edward Myers (Penguin, $6.95), may also explain the reactions you still feel.

Your mother's presence is with you, and will stay with you, whether she had left any letters or not. She is part of you and even part of your little girl. That's the real message you want to give your child.

Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.