SEEMS LATELY, WHENEVER I visit my mother-in-law, she insists on sending me home with things that, for whatever reason, she no longer wants.

My friend said her mother does the same thing to her."Every time I go see Mom," she said, "I know it's going to be another garage sale."

I've heard that getting rid of possessions is a sign of getting old, a nod to the simple fact that you can't take 24 place settings of fine china with you, even if you've had them forever and not one single piece is chipped.

If it really is a sign of aging, I'm worried. Not for my mother-in-law - she's sturdy as a Norwegian plow horse. But I wonder about myself. I keep trying to give things to my children, too.

"Why don't you take your Barbies?" I tell my daughter. "They'd look darling on your bed. And how about all those cheerleading uniforms and prom dresses and 4,000 pairs of dyed-to-match shoes? They'd still fit you. And the retro look is really, um, in."

Or to my son, I say, "You need some knickknacks for your apartment. You could really spruce things up with your old basketball trophies. And those rusty barbells might come in handy for you, too."

But my kids never listen to me. Instead of taking their things with them, they keep leaving more junk with me.

I, on the other hand, try to respect my mother-in-law's feelings, not to mention her need for closet space. If she says "Here, take this," I say, "Thanks, I will." Then I lug it home and try to find some place to stash it.

My last visit with her was on my father-in-law's birthday some weeks ago. The family gathered at his nursing home to have a party for him. He liked the cake. So did I. He doesn't always remember who I am, but I think he knew me this time. When I kissed him, he grinned and said, "Aw, that's sweet," just the way he always used to say it.

After the party, I drove my mother-in-law back to her house. It's hard for her going home alone after she's been to see him. So I told her I would stay the night, leave for home the next morning. She was glad for the company. I was, too.

She cranked up the air conditioner to cool me off, gave me a Pepsi and had me put my feet up in the recliner. Then we sat together, she and I, in her family room, where for 30 years we've shared Christmas and Thanksgiving, a whole lifetime of memories.

We stayed up long past her bedtime, talking and laughing like little girls at a slumber party. When we said goodnight, we hugged extra long.

Next morning, she sent me off with a box of lovely old dishes and the most awful bread basket I'd ever seen, a dough art creation, circa 1975, covered in furry, green mold. She'd treasured it, she said, ever since the Christmas I made it for her. Now she was giving it back to me.

"Gee, thanks," I said lamely, and drove away.

Those dishes are now in my dining room. I will keep them as a reminder of a woman I have come to love and admire.

And maybe, if I wrap it in enough guilt, I can unload that bread basket on my kids.