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I'm not leaving you forever,'' our daughter says, staring at suitcases and cartons blocking the sidewalk outside her dorm as we unload the car. Today she is off to college - and the rest of her life.

``Did we include cuticle scissors?'' I ask. Allissa nods. ``What about boots?''

For weeks, I have pored over a list - adding on, then crossing off items.

``What about discussing something besides what we packed?'' Allissa asks, shaking her ponytail. ``Do you think I'm going to Siberia?''

``Worse,'' I say. ``To nuclear winter.''

My husband carries the heavy boxes upstairs.

Picturing our only child surviving on microwave popcorn, I wonder how she'll adjust to sharing a room with two other girls. What will they be like? What will we be like without her? From Manhattan to Medford, Mass. - Tufts University - she goes.

Cinder blocks bring me back to my college days. Entering Allissa's room, I see a jumble of clothing, makeup, and appliances.

Tall and blonde, Andrea is from Connecticut. Stepping over cartons, she introduces her parents. Her father nods. In a gathered skirt, her mother speaks with a lilting New England accent.

Across the room, Shiri chatters in a Brooklyn-English accent mixed with Hebrew. Her dad is Israeli. Shiri begins to brush her thick black curls, while her mom, dressed in sleek tight jeans, sorts toiletries.

I want to make Allissa's bed. But my husband is assembling the computer on the mattress.

``Forget about the bed,'' David says, lining up parts. ``The computer is more important. She needs it for school.''

``But classes don't start for a week,'' I say, realizing he's already connecting wires.

I take pictures of cartons trapping me in and of Allissa's clothing on the bed. I hand her piles of turtlenecks over David's head.

``You're going too fast,'' she says. ``You're making a mess.''

I sit on her bed, frustrated.

I'm amazed at Shiri's mom, a bionic organizer, sending her second child to college. She's shoving sweaters on shelves and running out of space.

Shiri's dad stands on a chair, banging a nail that resists sinking into cinder block. He's coaxing a telephone to hang on the wall.

Andrea's father paces. Unloading suitcases, she and her mother are a team, folding and placing.

``Shiri, I hope you know you're here to study,'' her mom says, arranging shoes. ``We're not sending you to college to have a good time.''

``Sure, Ma,'' Shiri says, applying lipstick.

In a T-shirt and shorts, Allissa fills dresser drawers. David makes sure computer wires are screwed in tight. He flips switches. Lights flash. The computer sputters, and David sighs with relief.

``I've got it going,'' David says, removing a desk lamp from a carton and laying it on Allissa's mattress. He frowns.

``The clamp is broken,'' he says, never looking up.

I ask about making the bed.

``I can't deal with that now,'' Allissa says.

I cringe. No one ever told me that taking her to college would be like this.

David is now at war with the lamp.

I suggest buying another lamp at the bookstore, but he's afraid they won't have any.

``They'll have them,'' I say. ``They're a popular item.''

``What if the bookstore runs out of merchandise?'' he asks, fiddling.

``On the first day?'' I ask. Again I mention the bed.

``Stop obsessing,'' Allissa says, discarding cartons into the hall.

``You don't deserve the abuse you're getting,'' David whispers.

I take pictures of the room.

``What are you doing?'' Allissa asks.

``I want to remember before and after,'' I say.

``I wish you'd stop,'' she says. ``I don't know what's with you today.''

``I could go home,'' I say. ``We could leave right now. You've got your stuff and plenty of money. You can finish on your own.''

Her blue eyes turn steel. David puts an arm around her, and they walk to the hall.

``Calm down,'' he says. ``Mom's not doing anything wrong.'' He thinks we should stop for lunch. There's a picnic for freshmen and parents. ``With what we're paying in tuition, we don't want to miss a free meal.''

Outside the leaves have turned red and gold, accentuating an old-brick-and-ivy campus. We pile plates with fried chicken and salads, finding a sunny spot on the lawn among hundreds of people.

Two guys from Allissa's graduating class stop by, carrying full plates. I'm tempted to invite them to stay, but don't say a word. They join us anyway.

Allissa is icy silent.

William and Kin chat about their trip up here. Their parents dropped them at the station and are sending their belongings via UPS.

Every family handles this break from home in their own way. Last week, a friend of mine didn't go with her husband to drive their daughter to college. She couldn't face it.

``Jessica is leaving home for good,'' she said. ``I know she'll be back ... but she'll never live here again.''

William brings a plate of brownies, which we share. Then he and Kin leave. Allissa wants to visit the bookstore.

Linking arms with me, she takes my side in the desk-lamp debate. Whatever was wrong is now right. On this crucial day when Allissa seesaws in her last hours of childhood - I let the issue drop.

In the bookstore, boxes of lamps rise in a mountain above our heads. Allissa selects something sleek and white. We buy sweatshirts with the college emblem. We go back to her dorm.

Shiri's dad looks spent; her mom flicks excess clothing into shopping bags.

``I hope you use your computer,'' she says. ``Don't spend every night on the phone. You know why you're here, don't you?''

``To study, right Ma,'' Shiri says.

Andrea's mother reminds her to call her grandmother. Her father frets about her checkbook.

We are all worried that our kids aren't ready to be on their own - but they are.

Allissa's things fall into place. She hangs posters. The bed is finally made.

At 3 o'clock, we attend a matriculation ceremony. I snap pictures of Allissa, still in shorts.

The college president speaks. He says he hopes that parents have the grace to let children go; and that children have the grace to let parents share their lives. I hope so, too.

Afterwards, someone's dad takes a picture of the three of us. We stand together, smiling. It's the last picture of the day.

By now the sun is dwindling. With arms around her, we walk Allissa to her new home. Crossing a road inside the campus, we hear shouting. A girl stands next to a car; her eyes are red. Her father is at the wheel, her mother is by his side.

Two dozen students stare. Her father guns the engine. Taking off at full speed, he leaves her standing there.

Several boys snicker. ``What put him in such a good mood?'' one asks.

My heart breaks.

``There are people who handle emotions worse than we do,'' I say. ``At least we're parting friends.''

We agree that Allissa should call us first. We won't pick up the phone - no matter what.

We give our daughter long hugs and kiss her goodbye. Then we get into the car and wave.

As we drive off, I pull tissues to catch the tears.

``If we don't hear from you, when can we call?'' David asks, shouting out the window.

But Allissa doesn't answer. She's far away, walking down a path with new friends.

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