It was New Year's Eve, and our two daughters had returned to Boston a few days before, after spending Christmas week with us.

Maybe it was the goodbyes at the airport that made me feel the permanence of their leaving.

During their school years there were many departures, some teary, others with a sigh of relief, always knowing that they would be back soon.

The evening made me remember my many departures from home, but the one that stood out was on a freezing day when I lined up on Atlantic Avenue in Boston with a lot of guys around my age. All of us were wondering if we were leaving home forever.

It was December of.41; Pearl Harbor had been bombed a couple of weeks before.

I was a teen-ager looking for a way out of school and boredom, and I waited, carrying a little bag holding a razor that was used only twice a week, a toothbrush, and a few other items they told us to pack, as we headed toward the enemy.

The line was beginning to move when I heard a shout, "Wait," and out of the 200 guys I knew it was my mother who had been sitting in a car across the street.

Ignoring the traffic and waving a sweater in her hand she shouted again, "You're going to need this." I loved her, but she was wrecking my act. Who needed a sweater when you were ready to brave the guns of the enemy?So I turned my back, refusing the offer.

At about 11 p.m. that night after we arrived at some freezing boot camp I wished I had the sweater.

Now while our kids were around for a week this year it felt different from the vacation periods when they were home from school.

The first hint that adulthood had really crept into their lives was Christmas morning.

Gifts and wrappings were strewn all over the living room floor.

Other Christmas days in past years it would have stayed like that until late afternoon, but now before a brunch of broiled chicken livers, bacon and scrambled eggs, the saveable wrappers had been folded and the gifts spread out under the tree.

More time was spent at home -- after living all year in cramped surroungings they felt like spreading out.

The phone was not as busy as before -- the calls were short and more serious.

They picked up after themselves, and volunteered to clear off the table and do dishes without being asked.

Long periods were spent in the familiar surroundings of their bedrooms, searching through bureau drawers for memories and going through closets to find a favorite skirt or blouse that they had forgotten about.

There was a long evening with the picture albums ("did I really look like that?"), and each spent some time in the attic, porting over old books and magazines, or carrying dovenstairs in their arms a beat-up, stuffed animal to hold for a minute.

The nostalgia period for them covered only a short span in time, but it was nonetheless real.

Coversation at the dinner table became more interesting -- they'd brought home a sophistication that they had gathered out there in their world. There was talk of music, art, painters, theater, politics, writers, books, world problems, all far removed from some cute guy who sat behind them in English II.

You wondered what kind of meals they ate back in their apartments in Boston with the high cost of food and what they could buy on their minimum wages.

A hint of an answer came when the oldest opened the refringerator and said, "Wow, eggs, harm, English muffins," as she set out to fix her breakfast, carried it to the table and between each bite raved about how good it was.

There was none of the old "What will I do?" as they kept busy, relaxing, reading, writing notes, sketching, or listening to good jazz.

Dates were made and kept on time, and the question of "what shall I wear?" had been settled without outside help.

I missed my morning paper as the early riser sat at the dining room table poring over stories about Cambodia, and the Third World, and editorials. We had cocktails at five, and you knew you were sitting with adults.

When it was time to leave all the flight arrangements had been taken care of.

During the drive to the airport, I asked the oldest about renewing her D.C. driver's license and she said, "I have a Massachusetts license now; I don't need the D.C. one."

I watched them walk into the terminal at National Airport and had this tremendous impulse to get out of the car and shout after them, "Take your sweaters!" But I was afraid. They might just turn their backs on me. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, by Annie Lunsford for The Washington Post