Every year that passes finds me thinking of people - family and friends, old and new - wishing I had written to them at Christmas as I meant to, and hoping they're thinking of me, too.

More so than experience, it is people who shape us, who help make us who we are. Or so it has been with me. I've often thought to tell these people what they've meant in my life. But there are so many of them, it seems, and so little time. Besides, when I try to tell them, the meaning gets lost in the telling. I call them up, and the next thing you know we're talking about the weather.That's one of the differences in speaking and writing. Words, once spoken, can't be taken back. You can try to fix them up, try to clarify their meaning, try to make them say exactly what you mean for them to say. But basically, what's said is said.

With writing, until the very moment it is read, you can change it, erase it, as if it were never written. You can rip it up and forget it. Or you can write it and never let it be read.

Best of all, writing spares the reader from having to respond. No awkward moments. No mumbling, "Hey, thanks." No need to do anything, really, except maybe write back. And written words can be saved to read again. That's why phone calls, good as they are, can't replace letters.

Thing is, I'm not much good at writing letters, either. I love having written them - it feels like money in the bank - but I do not like having to write them. I suppose it seems too much like work.

So I end up spending much of New Year's Day writing thank-you notes in my head to people who will never read them - some of whom I've never even met.

Here are a few:

First, to all the teachers, parents, coaches, you name it, who've put up with my children all these years. I'd like to think the experience was always a joy, but I happen to know better. I'm their mother, but I'm no fool. For your concern, your patience and especially for your premature hair loss, I am grateful.

To my neighbors - who tolerate my dog's barking, my son's drumming, my husband's pruning and the embarrassing state of our garage, which we really will replace someday - I am grateful, but not technically responsible.

To some editors - one who gave me my first job at a newspaper (as a receptionist), and another who gave me my first chance to write, and all the others who've put up with me since - I am grateful most of the time.

To my best friend in school who found the grace to forgive me - in fifth grade when I bit her on the nose, and in high school when I stole her boyfriend - I'm grateful, not to mention sorry.

To other friends, whom I've never bitten or stolen from - who call to see how I'm doing, even when I forget to call them - I'm grateful and I'll call soon.

To a group of women with whom I meet each week to share confidentially from our lives - I'm grateful, especially for all the great material for a book.

Speaking of material, to my family (my dog, too), who provide me with endless inspiration and have not, so far, tried to put me away - I'm grateful and promise not to write about them again unless I really, really need to.

Finally, to the people who read what I write, who sometimes write back with encouragement, I'm both grateful and in your debt.

Each year has has been a memorable one. I traveled. I saw a couple of my children leave home for college. I've ridden a camel. I've seen the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, met Michelangelo's David in person. I witnessed the birth of babies.

Those and a thousand other events make each year a year to remember.

Yet on New Year's, I'll be thinking not of events, but of people. And if by chance they're thinking of me, too, I'll be truly grateful.