Among the too many items on my desk is a photograph of Dr. and Mrs. Jerome Kay.

Many years ago, the Kays provided me with the guidance I needed to become, for better or worse, the person I am today. Had I not known them, I could easily have wound up contributing far less to society than I have over my 57 years.

Until his retirement many years ago, Dr. Kay was a prominent heart surgeon. His contributions to the development of open heart surgery have saved the lives of countless people.

I have written about Dr. Kay a few times over the years, but have failed to ever mention his wife, Adrienne, and the role she played in their marriage and in my life.

I knew the Kays well during the years I was 16 through 21, a formative time in the lives of many teenagers. My own home, to be polite, was chaotic — a place I did not want to be and was seldom found as soon as I got my driver's license.

At the Kays', I saw how families worked when two responsible adults were in charge. Their children came first, whether it was their safety, their education or the general life guidance that parents are supposed to provide.

While her husband had his hands in someone's chest trying to stitch in a new heart valve or bypass veins, Adrienne did the shopping, maintained the home and took care of their six children. I now realize that without her superb work at home, Dr. Kay would not have achieved all that he did. Ask any spouse what it means to leave for work in the morning knowing that you will come home to a home without drama and you will understand what I witnessed.

Adrienne, I now realize, was the role model for Cay, the woman I eventually married in 1987. Like Mrs. Kay, Cay was focused primarily on the health and well-being of her family. And yes, I have noticed that my wife's first name is also the last name of the family — and the mother there — who meant so much to me. It is perhaps not a coincidence.

Adrienne recently died. Her death was unexpected and so, I believe, was her impact on so many lives. Though I have been in touch with only one of the Kay children over the years, I would bet that each of the four boys has settled down with someone much like their mother. A good thing, to be sure.

Her death came only a short time after my wife's and about nine months after my mother-in-law's, who clearly deserves much of the credit for shaping the woman who eventually became my wife.

It has been a tough year and tougher now that the holidays are here. Each of these three women had an impact on me that is highlighted by their absence at this time of year. Too often, the wives and mothers in families are not given the credit they are due. While they often work in the background and shy away from the credit for the responsible children they raise, these women are at least half of each family's success story.

I loved each of them in different ways and miss them now. They are gone, but not forgotten.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to smi161@aol.com.