We tend to think of Valentine's Day as a time to celebrate love between partners, whether in a marriage or similar relationship. But the occasion can also be a time for saluting bonds that are equally precious -- friendships.

Friendships between women are perhaps the most special, for those of us who make up half of the human race have much in common despite our myriad differences. And when these alliances have withstood the tests of time, they take on even greater significance. For through them we can trace the pathways of our lives.

Since the early 1960s, I have had a dear friend, who has always been there when I needed her. Although I decided not to send her a Valentine directly, I thought I would share this letter I wrote to let her know what a special friend she is.

"Dear Merle,

"I can hardly believe that it's been 20 years since we first met as graduate students at Columbia. You the Jewish girl from Brooklyn, and I the black girl from Kentucky learned quite a lot from each other. I learned about the dreams of a Brooklyn-born New Yorker; you learned from an expert what it was like to grow up in the South.

"You dreamed of moving to the East Side in Manhattan, which was then an exclusive section. I wasn't sure where I wanted to live eventually. All I wanted was to work on a good newspaper.

"I remember how you laughed at my awkward attempt to bridge the yawning cultural gap between us by saying that Kentucky was noted for three things: "good whiskey, pretty horses and fast women." But that statement, defensive as it was, paled against the broad knowledge you possessed as a native New Yorker -- oops! -- I mean Brooklynite.

"Like a big sister, you showed me the ropes and taught me to find my way around New York City. I was familiar with Duke Ellington's song, "Take the A Train," but I never knew the train passed through lower Brooklyn and I was amazed at the size of the New York subway system. Nor did I know where S. Klein's or Union Square were, or other places to shop for bargains on a student's budget.

"But most of all, I think of the chats we used to have and the secrets we shared about the men we knew and our families. Do you remember how surprised I was when I heard you criticize your family members? That was something I had been raised to think one never did; indeed, I had been led to think criticing parents was almost a sin. I came to realize that it was not that terrible; you learned that taken too far it could be a mask for one's own failings.

"Yes, we learned from each other, and later we mourned our shared inability to conquer the whole journalistic world with a single blow. Working for different newspapers, we swapped tales over our assignments and the places we were forced to go in pursuit of a story. But even then, we also bolstered each other's confidence when it sagged and supported one another through personal adversity.

"As the events of our lives took us down different roads, we stayed in touch, so that when you were gravely ill a dozen years ago, I found myself standing in your East Side apartment crying at how frail the illness had made you.

"I was a bit angered when you insisted on giving me a dress that I had admired years before because it made me feel as if you thought that you were going to die. But even as I reluctantly took the dress to placate you and left your house carrying it in a bag under my arm, I prayed that you would live and that our friendship would go on for many more years.

"With your recovery and subsequent move to Washington, we happily have been able to strengthen our friendship.

"While I chose to combine marriage, family and career, you seemed restless then with the traditional life. Always crusading, you supported causes that you thought were just, even when they were not popular.

"I guess we've both come a long way. But we still have a long way to go. Although one can never be absolutely certain of what life will bring, I think we'll make it. And that is why I've dedicated this column to you.

"Happy Valentine's Day, Kiddo."