IT ALL BEGAN, I SUPPOSE, WHEN Sheila's toilet froze back in the winter of 1975. She was living in the Rockies then -- she and her five daughters -- having fled New York and a failed marriage for life in a tiny Colorado mining town. We had long talked about living together, but she had come to love the mountains as much as I did Manhattan, and so, despite my constant courting, we remained half a continent apart.

Then came the winter of the frozen pipes. Sheila found herself bathing little Erika at the local laundromat, carrying cooking water home in plastic jugs, carting away bathroom wastes in plastic bags. After three will-testing weeks, she finally heard a gurgling from under the house and figured the thaw had come. She went into the bathroom, tried a test flush, then watched in horror as gallons of half-frozen sewage backed out of the pipes and across the nearby kitchen floor.

We decided to compromise and buy a house on Long Island. I spent the summer searching, and before school started Sheila and the girls piled into a pickup truck and headed East to our new home. Thus, shortly before my 29th birthday, I began my life as a stepfather of five.

I also began keeping a diary, a spiral notebook of late-night notes to myself. It was a casual family chronicle. Sometimes I dated my entries, sometimes I didn't. Often I ignored the whole thing for months at a time. When I started, I didn't expect that my haphazard jottings would ever amount to much. Fact is, there was a lot that I didn't expect back then . . . SEPT. 2, 1975 And so we're together at last. Sheila and the girls arrived this morning in an old blue pickup packed with suitcases, boxes, bicycles, even their giant white malamute. Everybody's safe and sound -- except for Ellie's cat, which disappeared someplace near Omaha and was never seen again. Just as well, probably. I've never been crazy about cats.

The girls seem to like the house, so we're off to a good start. Since I've borrowed money from everyone I know, no doubt finances will be our biggest problem for a while. Playing daddy, however, looks like it'll be fun. The kids are all beyond the diaper stage, after all. The hard part is over. SEPT. 3, 1975 Room assignments went smoothly. Marianne, Sheila's laser-bright 16-year-old, got the prized back bedroom all to herself and has already unpacked her guitar and books. For now, the four younger girls are doubling up. There was some squabbling over access to the bathroom, but that'll quickly work itself out, I'm sure. SEPT. 8, 1975 Made my debut trip into the city today as a railroad commuter. Apart from the expense and the lack of seats, it wasn't so bad. SEPT. 9, 1975 Judging by their primping, the girls were pretty excited about starting school this morning. I missed two trains while waiting to get into the bathroom.

I was also half an hour late getting home tonight (switch trouble). Felicia, the 12-year-old, was debating with Ianthe, 10, about who should make the next call on our brand-new phone. Felicia seemed to be winning, thanks to her height advantage and a superior hammerlock. SEPT. 10, 1975 I think we've entered an adjustment stage. The phone rang tonight, and a young voice asked for someone I'd never heard of. Ten minutes later another call, again for someone I didn't know. After the third wrong number, I went to Sheila.

"The kids decided to choose new names when they registered for school," she said. "I think they're trying to make a fresh start."

"With aliases?" I asked.

"We'll get used to them," she said. SEPT. 12, 1975 The malamute must get lonely when the kids are in school. He ate the arm off our couch today. And part of a small dog living next door. Keeping a sled dog in suburbia is going to be tougher than I thought.

Unfortunately, the couch was the only good piece of furniture we owned. Sheila spent hours trying to put the stuffing back but finally had to admit defeat and hide the damage under a pillow. I wonder if homeowners' insurance covers this.

Naturally, we've banned the dog from the house forever. Except when we let him loose to run, he'll be tied by a clothesline to the flagpole out front. SEPT. 18, 1975 The new names still have me confused. I am not getting used to them.

Tonight the ever-social Felicia (Kathy? Jean?) turned up for dinner with a surprise guest. Result: lamb chop shortfall. Asked later why she hadn't called home beforehand, Felicia said she'd tried but that "Ianthe was on the phone."

"How do you know it was me?" howled Ianthe.

"It's always you," said Felicia. "Who else ever gets to use the phone?"

Cries of protest. Rising voices. Shouts of "Ma, make her stop! Make her stop!" Finally eldest sister Marianne stood up, sighed and went off quietly to her room. An hour later, after the hubbub died, I could still hear her singing softly and playing the guitar. UNDATED Awakened at 5 a.m. by frantic malamute barks. The mutt had wrapped his line around a bush and was choking himself to death, so I had to go downstairs in the darkness and untangle him before he woke up the neighborhood. I'm sure he's getting even for the banishment. OCT. 13, 1975 Seven-year-old Ellie has started taking violin lessons and has been sawing away all evening. I must remember to encourage her. UNDATED Sheila says she wants to borrow money and open an art gallery. The painters will be people she knows in Colorado. I don't know who the customers will be. She says that western art is the coming thing, and she has already started scouting for a storefront. OCT. 22, 1975 Five-year-old Erika has abandoned Ellie as her roommate and moved into a storage closet. She has spent the last three nights there with a sleeping bag and her teddy bear. Probably just a phase. OCT. 25, 1975 Found a crayon drawing taped to Ellie's door. A picture of a tiny creature in a sea of blue, and written at the bottom in second-grader block letters: "I miss my cat."

We've promised a trip to the humane society on Saturday to find a replacement for the Omaha runaway. NOV. 3, 1975 Unpleasant odors near the front steps. Remember to investigate tomorrow. NOV. 15, 1975 Several crates of art have arrived from Colorado. Sheila has been busy painting the shop she rented and says that Rocky Mountain Artists will open for business in a week.

If this works, our troubles are over. UNDATED Odors present again today, but still no clues. Probably nothing to do with us. NOV. 18, 1975 Neighbors' complaints have forced us to discontinue the malamute's daily runs. Marianne and Felicia have agreed to walk him with the leash, but it's tough duty. Tonight he dragged Marianne through a hedge on his way to a dogfight. NOV. 21, 1975 Something bad seeped out of the front yard today. We've discovered the septic tank and the source of those odors. The neighbors had warned me about septic tanks. "Don't flush for everything," they had winked. "Go easy on the showers." I had the thing pumped out ($150) and spoke to the girls. Everything is under control. DEC. 14, 1975 Bill for wine and cheese at Sheila's gallery opening: $110.

Paintings sold: none. DEC. 15, 1975 I've started reading Dickens to pass the time on the train. Didn't get as much done as expected; we were only delayed an hour tonight.

The weather is starting to cool, and I'm now looking forward to my first winter outside the city. I hear we should be getting snow soon. DEC. 19, 1975 The oil furnace began coughing sooty black smoke today. The emergency repairman we called said a replacement will run $1,500. I haven't got it. The temperature is in the teens tonight and we're all taking turns huddling with the dog for warmth. DEC. 21, 1975 Things to remember:

1. Thank parents for loan.

2. Bones for malamute. DEC. 25, 1975 Our first Christmas together. Sheila and I spent most of the night assembling pre-fab dressers for the kids. Now at least they can unpack their clothes from the cardboard boxes they've been using.

Erika gave everyone a pet rock from the back yard and was almost breathless with excitement. Excitement's the reason for the hives she's had the past two days, according to Sheila. (She seemed to start getting better once she saw the dresser.) JAN. 13, 1976 Sheila's gallery looks like a loser. The paintings aren't moving, so she has begun baking sourdough bread to sell on the side. Maybe western art is bigger in the West. JAN. 21, 1976 Got a letter from my father today. He said he'd been trying to call for a week and couldn't get through. I gave him my number at work. UNDATED This month's bill from the phone company arrived. Must talk to Ianthe about abuse of calling privileges. Must reread chapter on middle children in stepfather book. Must stay calm. FEB. 13, 1976 Bad weather delayed my train 90 minutes tonight. When I got to the station, I tried calling Sheila for a ride home and got the busy signal as usual. I waited, dialed again, same result. After 20 minutes, I began the mile walk home through the snow.

When I got there, the kitchen was empty and the phone at rest. Something snapped. I picked up the receiver and slammed it into the wall unit as hard as I could. Plastic flew off like pieces of a skeet-shooter's pigeon; blue wires popped out of the receiver. "If I can't use the phone for one call a day," I shouted into the empty room, "then we won't have a phone."

It wasn't a lesson well taught, but it was one the kids had to learn. FEB. 14, 1976 Icy rains when I arrived at the station tonight. Also, no way of reaching Sheila thanks to yesterday's outburst. Another cold walk home to a late meal. FEB. 15, 1976 I decided the kids had learned their lesson and called the phone company from work today. "Equipment trouble," I explained. FEB. 16, 1976 Gallery update:

Paintings sold = zero.

Bread sold = 27 loaves. MARCH 1, 1976 Ellie has given up the violin because "it doesn't sound right." A good call, I think. MARCH 2, 1976 Erika has moved back into the bedroom with Ellie. MARCH 10, 1976 Sheila has taken a job selling camping equipment. Once people get bored with jogging, she says, camping will be the coming thing.

Cost of shipping paintings back to Colorado: $210. JUNE 7, 1976 Our ranks have thinned; Marianne has taken off for college in Colorado. Ever since she was barred from her senior prom for wearing jeans, we knew she'd be heading back to the mountains when high school was over. We're all lamenting her loss, except Felicia, who has inherited her room. JUNE 10, 1976 Felicia has put a padlock on her new bedroom door to prevent siblings from "borrowing" clothes. I doubt if it'll work. Ianthe is good with locks. UNDATED Another family loss; Ellie's cat went flat under a car and was buried in the back yard. The kids are already crying for a replacement, but I'm standing firm. I told them that the only cat we'd have after this would be mine, and I'm as likely to adopt a cat as I am a roomful of orphans. I think everyone knows that our feline days are over. SEPT. 23, 1976 My 30th birthday today. Sheila and the kids sat me in the living room and handed me a card with a quote from e.e. cummings: "I wish someone crazy would give me a daisy." Underneath Sheila had written: "Would someone like that maybe give me a cat?"

I spotted defeat right away this time, even before the kitten dropped into my lap. I've named her Murray, after our tax man. OCT. 19, 1976 Ianthe's got poison ivy and has puffed up liked up like a Pillsbury doughgirl. She's taking it like a trouper and even let us snap off a few photographs. She'd endure leprosy if it kept her out of school. FEB. 3, 1977 Jorge, the septic tank man, was out again with his pumper. I suspect I'm sending at least two of his children through college.

The neighbors told me to go easy on the showers. I might as well tell the girls to go easy on the air. Today's bill: $175. FEB. 11, 1977 To ease the burden on our overworked water disposal system, I've begun taking showers at a YMCA gym in the city. UNDATED Marianne's absence hasn't affected the bathroom situation. The room is a cluttered mess of cheap perfume, hair-spray cans, bath soaps and smudgy pencils. The medicine cabinet? No medicine. It's an "armoire of cruel instruments," to quote Mr. Dickens. UNDATED Got a call from Erika's second-grade teacher. Erika was fiddling with the bow in back of her dress today and accidentally tied herself to her chair. She sat there through an entire recess period before anyone realized what had happened. I mentioned it to her after dinner, but she said she didn't want to talk about it.

Ianthe's on the mend with a broken arm. She says she got it roller skating. I hope so. Felicia's being unusually solicitous. SEPT. 12, 1977 Sheila has quit the camping business. Now she's got a job at a local boat yard (as a painter) for slightly better pay. Maybe we can get the front stairs fixed soon, our No. 1 priority since the milkman stopped deliveries after that accident. UNDATED Good news: The department store at the mall won't be pursuing the shoplifting incident. It was a first offense, after all, and the scare alone probably taught Ellie a lesson. APRIL 15, 1978 Ianthe's 13th birthday. A day that will live in infamy.

Sheila and I decided to treat the kid and two of her pals to a fancy restaurant meal. We dropped them off and told them to call home when they were done. Hours passed. No call. Finally Sheila drove to the restaurant to see what was up. Ianthe, it turned out, on charges of grand theft auto.

That's the possibility, at least, if the old lady whose car she heisted changes her mind and decides to prosecute. Ianthe was caught joyriding about three blocks from home, read her rights and taken to the precinct house. After we went down and claimed her, Sheila and I told her she was grounded for life. Maybe she'll have time to think up a new alias. APRIL 28, 1978 Sheila has finally stopped grumbling about Ianthe -- only because she has broken her jaw at the boat yard and will be wired shut for six weeks. The house is filled with angry mumbling and the refrigerator with stuff that looks like elephant phlegm. That's the liquefied food that Sheila slurps down through a straw at mealtimes now.

I went to bed early tonight. I said that I wanted to finish David Copperfield. I lied. MAY 1, 1978 Sheila's worried about her teeth turning green while she's wired shut and can't brush. I told her that I'd love her any- way. I hope her teeth don't turn green, though. MAY 3, 1978 Ianthe's spring offensive continues. We discovered that she's been crawling out her window at night and meeting up with fellow hooligans after we've gone to bed. She's been murder lately, and the other day she slammed the front door hard enough to break a pane of glass. Another phase, no doubt. MAY 10, 1978 Finished David Copperfield during the morning commute. Now moving on to Bleak House. How quickly these 800-page novels fly by when you're trapped on a slow-moving train. MAY 16, 1978 Tonight's evening news interrupted by a scuffle outside our bathroom. Ianthe was applying her face paint for tonight's foray and refused to let Felicia in. Much yelling and pounding on the door, resulting in a fist-size hole just above the knob. I did the usual ranting, with the usual effect. UNDATED The school attendance office called Sheila today and showed her a pile of forged absence excuses. Seems that Ianthe goes to school as often as I go to Mars.

We've begun seeing a counselor, a prim, tight-collared woman who looks like she bypassed her own teen years altogether. When I mentioned Ianthe's nighttime escapades, she suggested I nail the window shut. Great advice. I hope Ianthe doesn't start using the front door next. MAY 23, 1978 A new low. Tonight about 10 p.m. Sheila found Ianthe getting dressed for another night out. "It's a school night," said Sheila. "I have plans," explained Ianthe as she laced up one of her knee-high boots. Big argument followed. Finally Sheila grabbed Ianthe's other boot, threw it across the room and shouted, "All right, then, go!" The boot knuckled through the air like a lopsided coconut and caught Ianthe right on the kisser.

According to the emergency room doctor, her broken nose should heal quickly, and the bandage can come off in a few days. Sheila is a wreck. All this will keep our counselor busy for weeks. AUG. 23, 1978 Marianne wrote and told us about her plans to hitchhike to California. Sheila is worried, but Marianne promised to call regularly and keep us posted. SEPT. 1978 Two weeks have passed, and Marianne has phoned only once -- from a Navajo reservation in Utah. No idea where she might be now. SEPT. 1978 Still no word from Marianne.

Tonight's train delayed an extra hour when an irate commuter refused to show his ticket and had to be hauled off in handcuffs. Managed to read four chapters of Bleak House. SEPT. 1978 The evening news told of a teen-age hitchhiker whose hands were chopped off by a rapist-motorist. Sheila's getting frantic. SEPT. 27, 1978 Contact. Marianne's in Santa Cruz, broke but apparently safe (hands still attached) and willing to come home at last. She left Colorado five weeks ago, and this is the second time we've heard from her. All is forgiven; plane tickets home have been arranged. SEPT. 28, 1978 Things to do:

1. Check MasterCard balance. JAN. 8, 1979 A German exchange student has joined the family. She'll be bunking with Felicia, who set the whole thing up through one of her teachers. Felicia says we'll hardly notice her and that our time together will be fun, fun, fun.

Amazingly, our new guest seems to fit right in. She even beat me to the bathroom this morning, just like everyone else. FEB. 14, 1979 Sheila's quit the boat-yard business. Now she's selling baby clothes at a shop in town. One thing she knows about is baby clothes. MARCH 7, 1979 Ellie celebrated her 12th birthday last night with a slumber party. No one slumbered until Sheila came downstairs at 4 a.m. and demanded quiet. Tonight I slept past my train stop and had to call Sheila from the next town.

In a few weeks Ianthe will be 14. Maybe we've weathered the storm with her. APRIL 18, 1979 Ignore last entry. Ianthe was nabbed again in a "borrowed" car, this one belonging to a friend's stepfather. There's some dispute over the facts of the case (like how Ianthe got the keys), so the police have scheduled a lie detector test.

This kid should write a book. A prison diary might be nice. MAY 3, 1979 I took off early from work today to accompany Ianthe to her lie detector test. As the cops led her away, I sat on a bench next to Sheila wondering where we'd find a lawyer, how we'd pay the bill, how long all this would be dragging through the courts. After I'd pondered our ruined futures for about an hour, Ianthe came back with the cops and everyone was laughing. She's off the hook again. The lie detector was no match for the detectee.

Trouble is, neither are Sheila and I at this point. UNDATED The train was late coming home again, prompting my usual ravings in praise of Mussolini. "What am I going to do?" I screeched at no one in particular.

"Keep cool?" suggested the exchange student. MAY 16, 1979 Two days ago Sheila sent a note to Ianthe's English teacher -- the one adult Ianthe seems to trust -- summarizing our recent troubles and asking for any advice she had to offer. Next day a social worker turned up on our doorstep, unannounced. Her first question? Had Ianthe ever been sexually abused by a stepparent? Ianthe was mortified. I was sorry we'd gotten the front stairs fixed.

Now, with the county bureaucrats on our case, we've been told to hire yet another family counselor. UNDATED Felicia has a new boyfriend, dubbed el Shark by her sisters, who now circles every evening. Sheila likes him because he helped her jump-start her truck last week. Boyfriends make me nervous. UNDATED The local cops brought Ianthe home today after catching her and some friends drinking beer in the park. While I was at the front door pleading for leniency, she slipped out the back door and took off again. SEPT. 1979 The exchange student left for home after telling us that she had a wonderfully interesting time. I can believe it. MARCH 7, 1980 Sheila says the baby clothes business is going nowhere and has hired on with a feminist publishing company. She says she can get us a great deal on all their swell books. MAY 24, 1980 Bliss. Sheila and I have left the children for the weekend and gone off to a country inn in Pennsylvania. We had a lovely dinner tonight, a stroll through town and a quiet nightcap at the inn's bar. So far the trip's been a real tonic for us both.

Sheila tried calling home to check on the kids but kept getting a busy signal. At least we know they're there. MAY 25, 1980 Arrived home earlier than expected this evening to find a dozen cars parked in front of the house. As we were unloading our stuff from the car, we spotted a friend of Ianthe's dumping the contents of a cardboard box into the bushes. Empty beer bottles. We raced up the stairs to find a party in full swing and kids everywhere. "Everybody go home! Out! Out!" I began yelling as I grabbed an armful of coats and tossed them onto the living room floor.

"Who's he?" I heard someone say to my left.

"Probably that father," somebody else answered. (That father?)

Ianthe escaped in the confusion and is still at large. JAN. 18, 1981 Sheila got into a fight with her publisher boss. Her new plan? To enroll at a nearby state college. She starts next week. APRIL 4, 1981 Went over to the high school today to watch Felicia in a marathon run for charity. She and members of her track team were taking turns doing laps when suddenly Felicia started throwing up red. Her track coach looked terrified and said it must be some sort of internal hemorrhage, so we threw her into the car and raced to the hospital.

I could see the worst coming: emergency surgery, a life-and-death struggle, mountains of hospital bills, financial ruin. False alarm: turns out Felicia had been drinking cranberry juice between laps.

I think I'm getting old. JUNE 13, 1981 General Quarters. Last week we rushed Ianthe to the hospital for an appendectomy. Three days ago she was released and sent home to recuperate. She has disappeared. JUNE 17, 1981 Tonight Ianthe called (collect) to tell us that she and a friend had hitchhiked to Texas. Sheila took the news calmly, unlike the other girl's father, who stormed over a short while later screaming about Ianthe and how she has corrupted his daughter. The malamute and I showed him to the door. JUNE 30, 1981 Ianthe's called again. It sounds like the last couple weeks in Texas have been less grand than she had hoped. What now? Send the kid a plane ticket home? Warn the Texas Rangers that she's there? JULY 2, 1981 Things to do:

1. Call airlines for standby fares from Dallas.

2. Check MasterCard balance.

3. Keep cool. AUG. 12, 1981 We've canned the family therapist that Sheila, Ianthe and I have been seeing. For months we've been trotting through our troubles with this guy, and all he's ever said was, "Well, what do you think of that?" Tonight he asked me what I thought of that, and I said I thought he was a fraud and a con artist who was stealing my money. Ianthe looked delighted; I think it's the first thing we've agreed on in months. SEPT. 8, 1981 Another school year begins this week. Felicia's off to college in Massachusetts, making Ianthe the senior sibling at last.

Ever since Texas, Ianthe has been acting more subdued -- burned out. She has even promised to start attending classes this semester. (Sheila told her she'd have to start paying us rent if she didn't.) NOV. 2, 1981 Felicia called from college and said that the Shark has been driving up every weekend to visit. Ianthe and I have found more common ground; she doesn't like him either.

Ianthe, by the way, is doubling up on classes to make up for all her earlier Fs. She's also working after school at a fried chicken franchise. She says she'll never eat chicken again. JAN. 4, 1982 My fellow commuters were buzzing about rumors of a railroad strike. If it happens, I wonder if anyone will notice? MARCH 14, 1982 Marianne is home for the next few months with Michael, the fellow she met in Santa Cruz. They've parked their backpacks and sleeping bags in the attic and have settled in. Michael knows something about carpentry, so we've hired him to put in a new bathroom floor. After years of exposure to steam and showers, it has begun suffering water rot. MARCH 22, 1982 Michael, it turns out, is a collector. He has found an old broken cabinet, about two dozen coat hangers and a shoebox full of 1970s baseball cards that he's now storing in the attic. Sheila says he's conservation-minded. I just wonder what plans he has for all this stuff. continued on page 56 continued from page 41 APRIL 12, 1982 The next-door neighbors moved away yesterday, leaving behind a dumpster full of their throwaways. Michael was in heaven. He has confiscated about 30 men's ties (circa 1950), a broken vanity mirror, an old lampshade and some discarded souvenirs from Disneyland.

Who's he conserving this stuff for? APRIL 22, 1982 Michael's collection has expanded into the garage. The broken card tables were too much for the space left in the attic. MAY 2, 1982 Small uproar tonight. Michael had to disconnect some pipes in the bathroom so he could retile the shower. Ianthe and Ellie have fled to friends' homes in search of working plumbing. MAY 12, 1982 The bathroom is finished at last, and we celebrated with champagne toasts and songs from Marianne. MAY 15, 1982 Marianne and Michael have taken off, sad to say. Sheila was teary all morning and stood in the street snapping pictures as they drove out of sight.

I only wish Michael's mountain of stuff had driven off with them. What I'll do with all his collectibles, I just don't know. I guess I'll put it on the street bit by bit and have our garbage men haul some away each week. That'll take a couple of months, though. JUNE 1, 1982 The Shark has lost his apartment, so Sheila said he could stay in our newly emptied attic over the summer. He's thrilled, Felicia's thrilled, and the two of them have been carrying boxes of his junk upstairs all day. To me, he's just one more person in line for the bath- room. JUNE 16, 1982 As if Shark problems in the attic aren't enough, now there's bad news from the basement. Our foundation is giving way. JULY 19, 1982 Ellie has a boyfriend who lives in his brother's pickup truck at the moment. His name is Doug. Ianthe calls him Doug the Slug. JULY 25, 1982 Awakened by loud snoring last night. Not the Shark's snores (which I now identify quite easily), but somebody else's. Sheila and I investigated and found the Slug sound asleep under Ellie's bed. His brother had evicted him from the pickup truck, and Ellie let him crash for the night on her floor. Sheila pulled him from his hiding place and drove him home to mom. AUG. 1, 1982 The Shark is gone. He and Felicia had a fight, and he has left with his things. The family consensus seems to be that he was a boob and not nearly good enough for our Felicia. As he walked out carrying his last carton of record albums, he asked Ianthe if she'd mind closing the door after him. "I'm always happy to close the door after you, Shark," she answered. AUG. 10, 1982 Marianne, the college graduate, has landed a job with the phone company -- delivering phone books. She and Michael are in Florida and planning to work their way across the country. AUG. 15, 1982 Today Erika and a friend set out on a bicycle tour of Long Island. Tonight they were brought home by the police, who found them lost. I asked, but Erika said she didn't want to talk about it. AUG. 22, 1982 What is it about Texas? Michael just called from the Galveston jail. He and Marianne were arrested for vagrancy while camping on the Galveston beach. Bail is $500. I talked to the police, and they said I could credit card the money via Western Union. The world is getting so much simpler. DEC. 9, 1982 Ianthe is seeing a steady beau, and, strangely enough, he seems unlikely to steal the family silver. He has been dropping by in the evening to watch TV with her, and his favorite shows are "Honeymooner" reruns. I'm hopeful. JAN. 10, 1983 Erika's informed us that she intends to become a model. She's found an ad in the newspaper and wants to enroll in a school for 13-year-old Cheryl Tiegses. I've advised her to start saving her baby-sitting money. JAN. 18, 1983 Erika had more baby-sitting money saved up than I realized. Modeling classes started last week, and already she's insufferable. Tonight she swept through the living room with new high heels and a sleazy sashay.

Her preening better give way to some studying soon because her grades are starting to nose-dive. I told her that even Cheryl Tiegs has to be able to read a contract. She's got lawyers, Erika replied. FEB. 7, 1983 Ellie has an afterschool job at a fast-food burger joint and says that she's saving to buy a car. That'll be nice, especially if she learns how to drive someday. MARCH 2, 1983 Erika's modeling career is on hold; she has run off to her father's apartment in New Jersey. She couldn't stand school, she says, and so this afternoon she cut her classes and took off on the train.

Sheila and I have agreed to let her stay for now and enroll in a new seventh grade there. Her father is happy to have her, and the decision makes some sense. Except to Ianthe. She thinks we're being too lenient. JUNE 8, 1983 Nightmare time. Late last night during the rainstorm, Ellie and a boy in jackboots vroomed up to the house on a motorcycle. Ellie hopped off, ran upstairs and quickly began changing her clothes. "What are you doing?" asked Sheila, who had climbed out of bed to see what was going on. "Going out again," said Ellie.

"On a motorcycle? In the rain? No you're not," said Sheila.

Ellie grabbed her purse and ran for the door, Sheila in pursuit. Downstairs, Jackboots gunned the bike, Ellie jumped on, and the two sped off into the inclement night. From the bedroom window I could see Sheila in her bathrobe, in the rain, running after them. "Come back, come back this instant! You'll kill yourself!" she was shouting.

When Sheila got back upstairs, she was drenched and looking terrified. "We'll never see Ellie alive again," she said as she crawled back into bed.

Half an hour later the phone rang. "Please try to stay calm; your daughter has just regained consciousness," said a nurse from the hospital. "She's been in an accident."

Jackboots had skidded in the rain and slammed the bike into a car. He had walked away with bruises, but Ellie had bounced onto the pavement and opened a gash on her chin. We found her in the emergency room crying, bleeding and being stitched back together.

The doctors say she'll be okay in a few days. I'm not so sure about Sheila and me. JUNE 10, 1983 Ellie is home from the hospital, her chin covered with a giant bandage. She's worried about having a scar once the wraps come off.

One of her friends has hooked her up with a lawyer, and he wants to sue. "You're the one who should be sued!" I raved at Ellie when I found out. "You should also be spanked!" SEPT. 6, 1983 The foundation problems are worsening. One more heavy rain and we might make the evening papers: Suburban family found in rubble. Large dog is sole survivor.

We're calling a contractor tomorrow. DEC. 12, 1983 Sheila noticed today that her license plates had dropped off the car, and she ended up spending six hours at the Motor Vehicle Department getting replacements. She was in a lousy mood tonight. I told her it's too bad she can't take the train to school. I'm such a kidder. JAN. 8, 1984 More strange car happenings. Today we received a notice in the mail about some unpaid parking tickets from a town in which we've never parked. The tickets were issued after the loss of our plates, so obviously we're innocent. Sheila has written a letter explaining. JAN. 21, 1984 Sheila's letter had results; now a collection agency is after us, threatening to put a lien on my salary. Is there no justice? FEB. 4, 1984 We learned today that Ellie had used her burger earnings to buy a car a few weeks ago, then "borrowed" our plates without telling us. The junker died before she got it home, and Ellie abandoned it in the town that's been dunning us ever since.

Mystery solved; murder looms.

That, it turned out, was my final entry in the old spiral notebook. Life went on, of course, including Ellie's, even though I stopped recording it and tossed the diary into a bureau drawer.

We spent the next few months untangling red tape and straightening out our problems with the Motor Vehicle Department. We talked to contractors about our crumbling foundation, then bankers, and finally a realtor.

During the summer we sold the house, moved into a Manhattan apartment, and Sheila started law school. Erika rejoined us when the new school term started. The following year she ran away once more but called home a day later to let us know that she was safe. Sheila and I ignored those who advised us to alert the police and the radio stations. Somehow we knew that she'd come back soon, and she did. Later, when we asked her reasons for going, she said she'd rather not talk about it.

She is 17 now, attends a parochial school in the city and seems quite happy. Lately she has been collecting travel brochures about Australia. We're not sure what that means.

Ellie, now 20, has moved to her father's more spacious apartment in New Jersey. The former child artist, whose crayon drawing sent us scurrying to the humane society, now commutes to a New York school of design. She has paid her own tuition fees with the money she collected after suing her motorcyclist friend.

Ianthe chose to stay on Long Island when we left. She had graduated from high school by then -- six months ahead of her classmates -- and now works as a reporter for a Long Island newspaper. Now 22, she drives a new car (her own), dresses like a young suburban professional and visits us often. She still thinks that we're too lenient with Erika.

Marianne, now 27, and Felicia, 24, were married the year we moved. Marianne's wedding to Michael was held in the deep woods of a national park in Oregon and conducted by a fellow known as Reverend Gary. Felicia's, to an equally loving mate she had met while in college, took place in the back yard of one of our old Long Island neighbors. Sheila's yoga teacher conducted the ceremony, and the entire family was there, eyes brimming.

Both daughters now live in Oregon with their husbands and their babies. Marianne's daughter, Berdie, is 14 months old now, and Felicia's son, Evian, is 2 years. Felicia and the boy came to visit this summer. Wise to the ways of children, we hid our breakables, taped our drawers shut and covered up the controls to the TV and the record player. It helped a little. Evian, all clutching hands and moving feet, still required a full-time keeper.

Sheila was happy to oblige and spent much of the time feeding and dressing her grandson and bouncing him on her knees the way she used to with her own babies. Felicia looked a bit weary, I thought, the way lots of young mothers look during that first brush with parenting, and seemed truly grateful for the chance to rest.

I couldn't help thinking, however, that what she was lacking wasn't energy exactly. It was perspective, the kind that only comes with age. I finally took her aside and told her not to worry. After all, I assured her, Evian is almost beyond the diaper stage. The hard part is over. ::