We've thought about removing the center board from our dining table; our family can once again fit into a restaurant booth; there are no more fights in the car over who has to sit in the middle of the back seat; music no longer explodes from the now-silent organ and piano; the washing machine runs less frequently, as does the second car; and the telephone receiver hangs on its hook.

It's September and our firstborn has emerged from the cocoon of care we have spun around her, to join the thousands of other 18-year-old in one of life's great adventures: "going away to college."

She didn't go far away, only 2 1/2 hours by car, but it seems much farther.

It isn't as if she hadn't been ready to go. She, unlike some 18-year-olds had always been mature for her age. Even as a kindergartener. And the years, her capacity for responsibleness just continued to grow.

Her senior year was a blur of activities, the intensity of which increased to almost fever pitch as graduation neared. The excitement of at last being at the top was unforgettable and, to her, worth all the years' efforts to get there. And yet, she was ready to be done with it -- read! to move on.

Accepted early by her first college choice, she knew last December where she would be going. There would be no last-minute worry for her in the spring.

Graduation came and went swiftly. So did the open house we gave for her. Then summer and the stark realization that she didn't have a job. There had been no time to job-hunt those final hectic weeks before graduation.

Three days after graduation, she began pounding the pavement and in a few more days had landed a part-time job. The hours and pay were decent, and though it wasn't glamorous, it wasn't the "pits" either. Her boss and co-workers were kind and she enjoyed her contact with people.

By the time the dog days of August arrived, the job had long since lost its newness and she began to look forward to her last day.

About the same time, she decided to break up with her boyfriend of nearly a year. They cared for each other, but she felt she needed the freedom to meet other young men at college.He didn't understand why they had to break up, but he accepted it as best he could. He, too; would be leaving soon for his senior year at a different college many hours and miles away. Time grew short.

She began to organize what she would take with her. After rounding up boxes from new neighbors who had just moved in, she began sorting and packing up 18 years of memories and treasures. It was not easy. Her 15-year old sister had asked to have her larger room, so she would not be returning to that familiar room on visits home.She knew it would never be hers again.

Only once -- when her 8-year-old brother confided in me, with tears in his eyes, that "I don't want her to leave!" -- were words used to express what we were all feeling.

The big day arrived at last (or all too soon, depending on how one looked at it). With our 12-year-old battered station wagon loaded to the roof rack, the family made the first of what we knew would be many treks to her school. Her feelings by this time, were ambivalent. She was ready . . . she thought.

We arrived at her dorm, as did 39 other girls and their families. The wagon was quickly unloaded and we helped her unpack. Soon all that needed to be done was done. We all hugged each other and left. No tears were shed on either side. After all, it was one of life's great adventures, wasn't it? And hadn't we, her parents, aimed for this time of independence since the moment she was born? And wasn't this what she had been waiting to do for all those years?

But wait. Where had all those years gone? Oh, they had been filled with the usual toys and dolls, schools, the first date, the first prom, getting a driver's license, the first job, music, laughter, love, tears . . . They had, of course, been wonderful years, but only the prelude for what would now begin.

No, there were no tears that last-first day, or since. But how do you measure 2 1/2 hours by car?