So this is it. The youngest child left home today for college. New England. Ivy League. How delighted we are. What good fortune for him.

The youngest child breakfasted with his father, who intermixed his own words of advice with liberal misquotes from Polonius and a passing reference to Lord Chesterfield. He was driven to the plane by his mother in the early afternoon.

On the drive to the airport, the youngest child emanated confidence. What did he think would be going on during freshman week? "Oh, the usual," he said with a sigh. "You go to a lot of meetings and people tell you why you should join crew or the orchestra or gay liberation -- things like that. You eat a lot of fried chicken and try to meet some women."

When the freshman's older brother and sister entered college just a few years ago, both were escorted to the campus by their parents. Their possessions were loaded in the station wagon, and after the long drive, toted up to the dormitory room. The parents scrutinized the roommate and greeted the roommate's parents. They debated the best location for the desk, then ran off to the college store to buy the student an additional lamp. They treated the student to a satisfying dinner at a recommended local restaurant before departing.

But the youngest child went off alone. A friend planning to drive that way the following week had offered to deliver the typewriter, the turntable, a trunk with winter clothes, a few boxes of books, records and tapes, and the bicycle. The freshman announced that, since his parents were familiar with the university and since it was a difficult time for them to get away, it made no sense to even consider driving up. With three children in college, he said with a wise smile, his parents had better not take time off from work. Of course he wouldn't feel neglected. He would not feel unloved. You must be joking!

The youngest child took with him to the airport a backpack stuffed with clothes, a sleeping bag and a worn, wedge-shaped read-in-bed bolster, which he could not be without, he alleged, and which he would simply carry in his lap or stuff under the seat. He left for college looking battered. One thumb was splinted because of a fracture incurred in an unlikely gardening mishap a week earlier. One side of his face was swollen and discolored because an impacted wisdom tooth had suddenly become inflamed and had required extraction. Neither trauma caused the youngest child much anxiety. He was toughened in infancy by being tossed around by a jealous 3-year-old brother.

Walking toward the gate, the freshman turned solicitously toward his mother, whose voice en route to the airport had suddenly become alarmingly quavery. "Think about how tidy the house will be," he said. "Think about how much time you'll have for your work. And there won't be anyone taking your car or bringing a crowd home to munch up everything in the fridge. Now you can really be an emancipated woman."

At the security gate he turned and smiled asymmetrically, offering the unswollen cheek. He was reminded to hold onto his address book, which was half pushed into the back pocket of his jeans. He was reminded to keep taking the penicillin prescribed by the oral surgeon. He was asked if his thumb hurt. He was urged to write frequent detailed letters and not to forget his grandparents either. He tossed the corduroy-covered bolster on the scanner belt and walked quickly through the metal-detecting arch. On the other side he turned back awkwardly.

"I think I'm really going to like it there," he said, retrieving the pillow and flinging it over his shoulder by one of its padded arms. A white fluff of stuffing rose in the air. He waved a debonair farewell with the splinted hand. "And you'll enjoy all that peace and quiet, wait and see," he called back. "Life will be so simple. You really ought to write that novel you were talking about. You'll love not having any kids around any more. I know you will."