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Sandals 'n sirloin

She was a child, carefully loved. In an atmosphere of tranquillity, she learned to tie her shoes, fold her clothes and when the time came, to read. She received regular dental checkups, music lessons and appropriate discipline - in a home where raised eyebrows had more of an impact than raised voices. She was my firstborn. As our family grew and I surrendered to the havoc of a large family, she held fast to the qualities of maturity and dependability, often found in the oldest child.

Through the cotton-candy mist of my memory, I see us at once baking cookies, painting murals on basement walls, and walking hand in hand through town. At each store window, we peer inside with joyful longing. The glass looks back, capturing for time our quiet love. She is wearing her Polly Flinders dress, matching knee socks and chalk-white sandals. I am smiling.

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We go to the library, to children's theater, and sometimes have lunch in a French restaurant. I order chopped sirloin, with parsley. For her, it is ''hamburg with grass.'' And for us, ''hamburg with grass'' remains the metaphor of unspoken, indefinable love between mother and daughter. She was my friend at eight; my helpmate at eleven; and now, at eighteen, my joy and pride. At eighteen she was going away to college.

Those late summer weeks before she left home were filled with excitement - shopping, sorting, packing. Old treasures were handed down to younger sisters and brothers. Her time had come, quicker than I realized. And yet, so I told myself, ''all was as it should be.'' We both knew she would leave someday and I was happy for her. With four other children at home, life goes on - so I said. Never did I give a conscious thought to the nature of my loss, lurking in the dusty corners of my heart, until, napping one sultry afternoon, I dreamed a dream.

There I was, hunting through the disarray of Mary's closet in frantic search. I held one of her little girl sandals in my hand. It was worn down, buckles missing, and smudged with time. If I could only find the mate I could make the pair as good as new. So I continued in frenzied search, my face dripping in the late summer heat. Then suddenly (for only in dreams is perception sudden) I knew the sandal was too small, that it would never fit again.

Awake now, I dried my eyes, got up from my nap and went about the preparations for dinner with not another look back. Passing salt, pepper and bits of ourselves around the table, I added remembrances of my ''crazy'' dream to the potpourri. No one paid much attention, except Mary. She only said, ''That's not too crazy, Mom.'' I met her eyes for a moment and with a shrug passed her look by with second helpings for all.

Several days later, Mary and I went out to do some last-minute shopping. In my mind, I planned a special mother-daughter lunch. She was leaving soon and I needed to say so much. Fragmented thoughts and feelings jostled around and about , searching for some means of expression. I couldn't remember when I last told her I loved her. I wanted to say instead things like, ''Take good care; be wary of candlelight and soft music for a while. Don't trust too soon the magic of moonlight. Go gentle into your tomorrow!''

So we shopped. With haunting dreams forgotten in the daylight, we focused on finding just the right place for lunch. With the same petulance one feels when not able to find exactly the right thing to wear, we tossed each suggestion into a heap of rejects. Mary finally came up with the idea of going to our little French restaurant of long ago. The decision made, we both giggled with relief and delight. We seemed to skip past the wonderland of store windows; we all but tumbled down the stairs into the noonday twilight of the restaurant.

While we stood in line, waiting to be seated, I felt a tap on my shoulder - as I once had felt when she needed an eyelash removed, her hair parted, or an unreachable hook, hooked. I looked as her eyes met mine and had sense enough to wait. Mary took my hand in hers. ''Mom, I just want you to know that I may not fit into my sandals anymore, but I'll always remember 'hamburg with grass.' '' Then she gently let go.

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My heart filled with the peace of a recent benediction, we moved into our meal. Between tidits of gossip and morsels of good food, we nourished each other for the future.

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