Dear Mom and Dad:

Thanks for the gifts. No, not for the stuff that came in the mail the other day. The kids will be writing you about that. What I have in mind are those long-ago gifts that have made so much difference in my life.

I'm thinking, for instance, of Mom's gift of the love of language. Whatever rhythm and grace my writing possesses, I owe to the fact that Mom (English teacher and amateur poet) sparked my interest in the way words work, taught me to hear both the sound and sense of words and to use the one to reinforce the other.

You've probably forgotten those pre-television evenings when we used to sit around the fire and listen as she read poetry, her own and others': Frost and the Brownings, Lowell and Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson, Whittier and Sandburg, Dunbar's dialect and even Eugene Fields and that stuff out of "Poems Teachers Ask For."

If Mom's poetry-readings taught me style, it was Dad (the shop-teacher pragmatist) who taught me substance. Both end tables and arguments, he taught, were shaky and worthless unless they stood squarely on all four legs. Both had to be planned and thought about and tested if they were to be worthwhile.

You both will recognize the false symmetry of what I am saying. Mom wasn't all beautiful words; as a sometime math teacher, she also understood the requirements of logic. And Dad wasn't all pragmatism. He chose words as carefully as he chose his tools. In all those years as chief lay reader at St. Bernard's Episcopal, he was a master of the elegant sermonette, skilled at making words carry their weight, both logically and esthetically.

All these things influence the best of my newspaper columns, and I'm grateful for them.

But it isn't just my writing that has been shaped by your gifts. My view of the world is forever influenced by Mom's passion and Dad's cool examination. You never resorted to name-calling, knowing that it was better and more satisfying to alter an enemy's view, however subtly, than to engage in ad hominem argument. And you gave me the grace to acknowledge that even our enemies are right some of the time.

Thanks for that, and thanks, too, for the courage you gave me. You must have found it painful to raise your black children in the terribly limited environment of segregated Mississippi: the second-rate schools, the second-class citizenship, the total disfranchisement (I was in college before you voted in your first election). And yet neither of you ever dwelt on racism. I suppose you took it for granted that we were aware of the unfairness of the Mississippi society and took it as your duty to give us the strength and self-confidence to make the most of our too-limited opportunities.

As a result, my brother, my sisters and I never thought of ourselves as hopeless victims but as the masters of our own fate.

Thanks for that.

And thanks for your emphasis on moral and ethical standards, an emphasis you taught by both precept and example. The "values clarification" nonsense they teach nowadays would have struck you as silly. To be sure, there were moral and ethical dilemmas to be dealt with, and you taught me how to work through them. But you also taught me that I didn't have to work through every single decision. Some things were simply right or wrong.

I don't pretend that my ethical choices have been consistently right. But I do know that when I choose badly I know it, and I still have the grace to feel guilty about it.

For all these things, and for so many others, thank you. It would embarrass me for you to know what poor use I have made of some of your gifts. But I think it would please you to know how much I value them all.

I know that it must embarrass you for me to say these things so publicly. But I think a columnist's readers have the right to know who he is, and how he came to be who he is.

Thanks for everything. And Merry Christmas. Bill