HER VOICE ON THE phone at first sounded cheerful. Yes they'd had a good trip. It's a nice drive between here and Yellow Springs. Ohio, only eight hours. part of it spent on the Pennsylvania Turnpike as it cuts across the Appalachian Mountains. They left early Thursday morning the three of them, Virginia, Pete and Cynthia, the trunk loaded into the station wagon and now it is Saturday afternoon and Pete and Virginia are back home. Their oldest daughter Cynthia, stayed behind in Yellow Springs at Antioch College. "She's gone," Virginia sighed into the phone and then her voice broke. "And it's just terrible."
She wept with the worry of it, talking it out into the phone: the worry that her 17-year-old daughter was now alone, off on her own. "She seems so young, so immature, so vulnerable," Virginia said of her daughter who has backpacked in the mountains of Austria, traveled in France, to Moscow and Leningrad, all without her family. "Do you suppose she'll be all right?" And sher wept with the pain of it, the pain of losing her oldest daughter of seeing her grow up and go away to college and knowing that she'll come home again, but it will never be the same. "Enjoy your children while you still have them," she said. "They grow up so fast."
Later when we talk, the tears are there, under control, but threatening like a summer storm, as she talks, trying to understand her sorrow. Talking seems to help. "I guess the greatest problem is suddenly your child seems very young and very fragile and helpless, and you feel a great desire to carry on in the role you've always had of protector and counselor. You know you'll be able to carry on a little but certainly not on a daily basis. They're there and they have to make their own decisions. They've got to remember where they've got to be and the things they've got to have with them, how to cope with a whole new routine and organization, figure out how the college operates. It's sort of staggering and I guess it's also that you have a feeling of wishing it were you starting on this great new adventure.
"When we got there they gave Cynthia all sorts of written material. There was a handbook from Planned Parenthood and another one on venereal disease. On the bulletin board there was a long paper, about a foot long and very narrow. It listed all the things that you should do if you get raped. Well, I thought it was something every woman should know and I suppose I was glad it was there for all the girls on the college campus to know, but at the same time you don't like to think about this kind of thing happening to you or your children. It makes you realize there are dangers of this sort your daughter has to face and above all else she should be prepared for them.
"Everybody goes through stages and leaving home and going to college is one of those times. It's a stage in the development of the child." She said, stoically, "and it's a stage in the development of the parents as well."
The departing daughter is lovely, kind, smart, tough and vulnerable. Many a teen-age girl has burdened Cynthia with her troubles and she has soothed and counseled them. Cynthia is the kind of young person we think of as an endangered species. She has "standards." She has the "firm foundation" - parental code words for children who won't disgrace themselves and their families.
There are six splendid people in Virginia's family - a son who is now a sophomore in college, Cynthia, two younger teen-age daughters, and the parents. Pete, the father, is an important government official. Virginia has been active in local politics and with two children in college has gone back to work after 19 years of raising children.
Like so many other families in the Washington area, this family has undergone the stress of living abroad, sent there by the government. It is a close, affectionate, athletic, garrulous family. There is a dismantling process going on there now and Virginia, who at times has gone to great lengths to keep her family together, has entered the stage where she must help her children leave. She's doing it because this is what mothers do for their children and, for a while last weekend, it was tearing her apart.
"I went to sleep crying Wednesday night," she said, "and I woke up crying Thursday morning. I was crying into my English muffin at the Holiday Inn restaurant in Colombus. Being parents is just such a very wonderful thing." No, she said. Cynthia did not cry "and she never saw me either."
It is, she said, a selfish thing to feel deprived of children's company. After all, her children are doing what they are supposed to do. "You've brought them up to do exactly what they've done. That's one of the goals I've had for my children, that they go to college. They're doing exactly what was planned. You'd be devasted if they didn't."
"I was said when mine went off to first grade and to kindergarten. That was another stage we go through. When you say you enjoy your children, sometimes they are a pain in the neck and you scream and say deliver me, but you're supposed to have those days. It's part of the challenge, part of the fun.
"It really is a great loss because when you've enjoyed having your children, having them grow up and hearing about their activities, their concerns, the conversations that have taken place, their philosophies, when you've enjoyed helping them wrestle with the complications of their lives, there's great void and a great emptiness when one leaves the nest. Even if you get one who goes away and writes or telephones frequently you still miss a lot of things that are happening to them and their lives that you just never know about."
This is not the first child Virginia has sent off to college and it isn't getting any easier. Her son left last year, but the family was abroad and he returned to the United States by himself. "It was sa," she said. "I was sorry to see him go but I didn't have the same emotional experience I did with Cynthia and I don't know whether it was because he got himself there or whether it's because he's a boy and Cynthia's a girl. On the other hand, I drove him to Union Station this year and started crying going down Constitution and got lost.
"All six of us had been together all summer and it had been so wonderful and then it came to an end."