I am haunted by the thank-you cards I have not sent. By the ghosts of presents past.

There's the one that should have gone to Avis for my wedding fajita plate in 1993, or to Sharon for the sleeveless eyelet top in '95--not to mention the 15 or so that were supposed to go out in May after my 18-month-old daughter, Savannah, turned 1.

These cards still live with me, booing me from this sort of Alsace-Lorraine place in my mind where duty and sentiment meet. Scaring me with my own shortcomings.

I used to be better about getting them out. I've had parties and showers and little pick-me-ups from friends, and I promptly followed up with a card. I missed the one to my friend Avis only after hundreds of cards already had been sent. After I ran out of my stash of special-order, preprinted wedding notes. And after too much time had passed, and I was too embarrassed. I missed her, but I never forgot I owed her one, and part of me has always been afraid that she never did, either.

These days, I've accepted that I have TCI (thank-you card issues). It is a condition marked by obsession, procrastination and a great deal of guilt about the ritual of thanks. I'm not sure how I got it. Maybe after being on the party circuit for nearly six years with my oldest daughter, Sydney, and high-level agonizing about gifts and cards and goodie bags and treats. Maybe after becoming a full-time reporter with a husband who used to drive to grad school in North Carolina, and now works in Philadelphia. After having two children, or missing family dinners three times a week.

Seems like I'm always dashing, dancing, putting out fires. Crashing like last year's hard drive, trying to run my super-woman software without enough memory. A part of me longs for the days when a thank-you card at a birthday party for a child too young to write was unnecessary. But a thank-you was lovely. When the ritual of thanks didn't seem to overwhelm the sentiment.

It is a post-modern lament Judith Martin has heard before.

"I have no sympathy for the idea that an expression of gratitude is a burden on your time," says Martin, who writes the nationally syndicated "Miss Manners" column. "And thank-you cards are the form for doing it. It's not enough just to have the sentiment. You have to convey it."

And lots of people artfully do just that. According to Hallmark Cards, the nation's largest greeting card manufacturer, sales of thank-you notes last year increased 9 percent over 1997, and 58 percent of moms make their children send them.

Sharon McCorkle is among them. Although she runs Rainbow Christian Family Daycare out of her Upper Marlboro home, she manages a busy social calendar for daughters Trenise, 8, Triana, 5, and Troiah, 3, which can include sending more than 100 notes of thanks a year.

Although McCorkle says she sometimes feels like she needs her own social secretary, sending cards is "important to me. Just telling them [thanks] at the party is general. You're making it more personal" sending cards. "It lets people know you're grateful for what you got from them."

McCorkle uses the cards as a tool to reinforce her children's handwriting. And to make good etiquette a lifelong habit--not to mention good time management. I "just do it, get it out of the way and move on to the next thing," McCorkle says. "That way I don't feel overwhelmed."

And there isn't the specter of a thank-you card incident, like the one experienced by Debbie Taylor Moore, a senior account manager for Lotus/IBM who lives in Glendale. Moore once sent a wedding gift to a friend in New Zealand. She didn't hear from that friend for six months and was left to wonder if the gift even arrived. "I had anxiety," says Moore. "You don't want to get to the point where it's like 'Let me call.' That's so tacky."

Growing up, Moore says, her mom always stressed the ceremony of thanks, and her grandfather often reminded her that people don't have to do anything for you, so you must show gratitude.

These days, when gifts for Moore's two sons, Jeffrey, 4, and Trevor, 2, arrive, often via Fedex from faraway relatives and friends, the cards go out promptly. As in that very instant.

"The minute they open them up, I write the note, while they are still excited. While I can explain the reaction. . . . What I find is if I wait, it becomes more perfunctory as opposed to heartfelt. I feel like I am doing something polite as opposed to putting my feelings down on paper."

And it is not until I think about thank-you cards in terms of writing my feelings that my mind opens up and remembers the cards that have warmed my heart. Slower than a speeding e-mail, more thoughtful than a call, thank-you cards can be a genuine moment of intimacy with folks too busy for a heart-to-heart. And suddenly I realize it's not the notes I resent, it's the feeling that my life is moving too fast for those simple human connections.

According to Miss Manners, for a child's birthday party, assuming they are small presents (as opposed to bicycles, or college tuition) traditionally spoken thanks when the present is handed over are enough. Written notes must be sent for a major present, a wedding present, or if the gift is not given in person. That said, sending a thank-you card is never a bad idea.

For the cards that haunt me, "the slate never gets wiped clean," Martin says. "If the card is way overdue, "you have to grovel more. You have to be creative."

I wonder if there is a way to say thank you to Avis and Deneen and Sharon and Debbie creatively. And for a moment, I wonder if putting it in a newspaper article qualifies. Then I catch myself. I slow my world down.

And I begin addressing some long-overdue cards.