IF parents were given a dollar each time they issued a gentle reminder to their children to ``Be careful,'' many of them could finance a cruise with the money they accumulated during their child-rearing years. Add another dollar for every night they stayed awake, one eye on the clock, one ear on the door, waiting for adolescents to return from an evening out, and they could probably add a side trip. For their part, children - blithe and independent spirits that they try to be - often act bewildered by this parental concern. ``What do you think I am, a baby?'' they ask with youthful indignation, adding, ``I'm always careful. Quit worrying.''
So it comes as a surprise when the tables suddenly turn - when one day a parent, about to leave on a business trip, stumbles out of bed in the predawn darkness and finds a note in a teenager's handwriting on the bathroom sink:
``Mom - Have a fun and safe trip!! Be careful!!''
Talk about role reversals!
A few months later, the cautionary mood escalates. Another note appears, this one written on the eve of a business trip that is scheduled to include appointments in high-crime neighborhoods.
``Mom, please be very careful on your trip!! Don't take any risks!! Please go with a chaperone or something, okay[''
I am as amused as I am touched. A chaperone? For a parent? What kind of double standard is operating here, anyway? This entreaty, after all, comes from a student who thought nothing of driving her '69 Mustang nearly 1,200 miles to college during her freshman year - and who couldn't understand why her parents might have reservations about the trip.
These are the new ceremonies in holding and letting go, 1990s-style. More and more, life today seems to consist of partings and reunions. Parents - fathers and mothers - head off to jobs and business trips. At the same time children, from an earlier and earlier age, become soloists - junior adventurers on their own in the world.
Babies and toddlers are trundled off to day-care centers, a diaper bag becoming the infant version of a briefcase. Young children trot off, lunch boxes and book bags in hand, to a full day at school, unbroken by a noon meal at home.
And in what is probably the ultimate form of youthful independence, children still too young to cross the street by themselves now cross the country alone at 35,000 feet, becoming part of a group the airlines call ``unaccompanied minors.'' So numerous are these pint-sized globetrotters - with or without parents as traveling companions - that Delta has even established a Fantastic Flyer Program for 2- to 12-year-olds, complete with ``the latest issue of the Fantastic Flyer magazine, a personalized certificate, and two membership cards.''
Memorial Day marks the unofficial beginning of summer - and of summertime separations. Soon adolescents will begin leaving home for summer jobs at camps and resorts. Parents of young campers will start filling trunks with swim suits, shorts, jeans - and a supply of pens and stationery in the sometimes vain hope that there will be ``Dear Mom and Dad'' letters sent home. And children who have spent the school year with one parent will begin heading off to spend at least part of the summer with the other.
The seasonal goodbye refrain becomes a ritual, if not a prayer. ``Have fun,'' parents will say, smiling bravely, ``and be careful.''
``You, too,'' their departing offspring may reply, an airy casualness hiding any possible lump in the throat or tug on the heartstrings.
Such separations are as rooted in love as separations 50 years ago, when a family's radius was far smaller and separation was the exception rather than the norm. For all of our late-20th-century sophistication, for all of our practice at saying goodbye, we aren't really any better at letting go of close ties.
Three generations ago, when 20 miles was the equivalent of 500 today, my great-grandmother routinely urged her grandchildren to ``Come home safe.''
The words echo familiarly in my own ears - and in my daughter's. In the world of holding and letting go, everything changes - and everything stays the same.