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Unexpected gifts are always a nice surprise. But sometimes, they're also what we need.

On New Year's Eve, my daughter and her 9-year-old, Henry, brought us dinner: her fabulous enchiladas and Henry's famous avocado dip, with homemade flan for dessert.

Two days later, my daughter-in-law brought Randy, 10, Wiley, 7, and Eleanor, 5, over for a "driveway visit." They all wore masks like a band of really cute bandits.

And then today, a package arrived. I recognized the return address right away. My oldest and his wife and their Jonah, who is almost 2, had already spoiled my husband and me with Christmas gifts. We didn't expect anything more.

When I opened the package, I began to cry. It held a statue of a woman seated on a stool. Her long hair was pinned up on her head with tendrils falling on her neck. In her arms and in her lap, she held a child, a boy about 2-years-old. His head was tucked beneath her chin. His arms and legs were wrapped around her.

I studied it closely, turning it over in my hands, smiling through my tears. It looked like me, or rather, like how I looked long ago, holding my first child when I was that young and thin.

Then I read the note that was enclosed: "Dear Nana, I hope this reminds you of how you once held my daddy. And then, how you held me and, soon enough, my little sister. But also how you will ALWAYS hold all of our hearts (my Mama's too!) We love you ALL! Jonah xx"

The "Love you ALL" is a thing I've taught my grandchildren. When I ask, "How much do I love you?" they'll lift their arms and shout, "All!" Because "all" is as much as anyone can love.

Jonah learned to say it (with a British accent like his mom's) when he was barely a year old. I'm hoping he'll help me teach it to his baby sister when she makes her debut this spring.

Some of us grow up with great expectations of extraordinary achievements in our lives.

Me? I just wanted to be a mother. Actually, I wanted to be a grandmother, but I figured being a mother came first.

My mother quit school to marry at the age of 15, then worked hard most of her life as a waitress and a millhand.

My grandmothers raised large families, but never worked outside their homes. They took care of me when I needed them, which was most of the time.

My dad's mother taught me to love nature and how to read and write before I started school. My mother's mother taught me how to tell a good story and make everybody's business my own.

Those two women could not have been more loving or more different. I'm blessed, or cursed, with both of their natures.

At times, it's a bit confusing. I'm never sure which woman is whispering in my memory. Sometimes it seems they're both shouting to be heard. But their guidance helped me raise my three children, and it is helping me now to be a "Nana."

I know so many young women, like my daughter and daughters-in-law, who work so hard to do their best for their little ones.

A great many older women raise grandchildren full time, or serve as backups to help overworked parents care for their little ones. Not just to feed and clothe them, but to comfort and teach them, to keep them safe and give them hope that the world is a magical place where their dreams can all come true.

Those are gifts we can give our children and grandchildren and other young lives that we are blessed to hold in our arms and our hearts and our prayers.

We give them ourselves and they, in turn, give us purpose and joy and a whole lot of hugs.

And sometimes they surprise us with unexpected gifts that make us smile through tears.

How much do we love them?

All.

Sharon Randall is the author of "The World and Then Some." She can be reached at P.O. Box 922, Carmel Valley CA 93924 or by email at randallbay@earthlink.net.

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