When an image of Panama flickered on the screen of her tiny kitchen television, Margherita Fairchild froze. "Megan," she called to her 13-year-old daughter, "go turn on the big TV in the family room."

Together in their Great Falls home, mother and daughter watched an event that tore the fabric of Fairchild's life. Former president Jimmy Carter, smiling charismatically, symbolically handed over the Panama Canal--which is a few miles away from Fairchild's lovely girlhood home--to Panama's president, Mireya Moscoso.

"It is yours," Carter said.

That Dec. 14 ceremony foreshadowed what will happen today, when the United States officially relinquishes ownership of the canal and the beautifully landscaped communities surrounding it--the Panama Canal Zone.

Megan, sitting beside her mother as she stared at the screen, could see that Fairchild's heart was breaking. "Mom," she begged, "don't cry. It's okay."

But Megan couldn't comprehend that the most delightful part of her mother's childhood was being wiped out. Washington residents who migrated from the zone--they call themselves Zonians--say anyone who hasn't lived in the 50-mile-long, 10-mile-wide Canal Zone can't possibly understand.

"I was in a funk all day," said Fairchild, 38. "It just seemed like part of my past was going away."

"When you try to explain it to someone who didn't live there," said Evelyn Sellers, 49, of Manassas, "they look at you like you're from another world." In a way, Zonians are from another world. They are very average Americans who lived almost like royalty in a paradise.

Lori Geiger, 38, now a District resident, said her parents rented a house on land "that's probably worth millions today." At dusk, the family would often lounge in an immense back yard, sipping iced tea under mango and coconut trees while watching the sun dip below the Bay of Panama at the mouth of the canal.

"It was beautiful," Geiger said. She cried when the Army reassigned her father to Fort Bragg, N.C., after three years in the zone. "It was May 30, 1978, on my birthday. I'd had some good friends and good times."

Fairchild's family home in the Canal Zone had a maid's quarters, like most other houses. "We all had gardeners and maids," Fairchild said. "Here, we're barely middle-class." As the rich do in movies, Zonians often claim that the help were not like workers. They were more like family.

Orion Cronin Hyson's father, a ship pilot who worked for the U.S. government, had a house with a living room "that opened to a patio that opened to a garden where there was a swiming pool with a waterfall. A baby pool went to a main swimming pool. It was living space."

Hyson, 43, now of Bethesda, called the zone "an American socialist utopia" because of its sultry tropical setting and the way it was meticulously run by an all-powerful U.S. government company called the Panama Canal Commission.

The PCC controlled the narrow isthmus. Along with operating the canal and collecting shipping tolls, it ran a strict community police force, built housing and managed the environment. It hired an army of workers who attended to every detail of the canal and its lush bedroom community, supplying everything from food to plumbers.

Each week, gardeners worked on the Zonians' shrubs, courtesy of the PCC. The yard work--intended largely to help control mosquitoes that carried yellow fever and other diseases--created a "Fantasy Island" aesthetic. The result was 50 square miles of manicured lawns greener, Zonians say, than anything on the mainland.

"Everybody's yard had flowers and shrubs that were maintained by the U.S. government," said Darrow Cronin, 40, Orion Cronin Hyson's sister. "It looked like a biological park."

The lawns and hedges pressed against jungle, and Zonians relaxed and fell asleep to the chattering of exotic birds, crickets and monkeys. It was an almost perfect world, a community so close that even in 1985, Zonians say, they identified more with the 1950s "Leave It to Beaver" version of America than with the popular "Family Ties" of that time.

But there was a price to pay for the zone's 1 million Army personnel, civilian workers and their children. Many kids feared that the commission would ship out their family if they misbehaved.

Darrow Cronin, for one, never felt that kind of pressure. "It was not a police state," she said at her home in Alexandria. Cronin is a distinguished Zonian, a former homecoming queen at Balboa High School.

She fervently supports America's involvement in Panama, and believes handing over the canal is a mistake.

"The political importance, the safety importance, the military importance is really misunderstood," she said. "We created something that wasn't there already. We built beautiful houses and grocery stores. We created neighborhoods. We added a tremendous amount of value and life enhancement features to that country."

But the canal was built on Panamanian land. Carter believed that owning a territory that ran the length of Panama shamed America, prompting him to sign the controversial treaty that led to today's handover.

In 1977, Carter said that the canal accords signed in 1903 were unjust and that the United States "did not understand clearly enough that the arrangement defined a certain element of colonialism."

Most Panamanians hated the Zonians and considered them arrogant, said Juan Manuel Handal, who publishes an Internet newsletter about Panama. He recalled that many Americans never bothered to learn Spanish.

Directly across from the Canal Zone was the poverty of Panama City, which many Zonians ignored, even as the psychological gap between them and the Panamanians widened.

Whether driving or traveling by foot, Panamanians were forced to pass through U.S. territory to get to the other side of their own country. "I always felt a country within a country was not right," said Tom Sellers, of Manassas, who lived in the zone for decades when his father worked for the PCC.

Bob Karrer, an amateur zone historian and former Army lieutenant colonel who taught at the School of the Americas, is one of the few Zonians who, like Carter, believes that handing over the canal was good policy.

Strategically, he said, the canal is "not as important as it once was. None of our aircraft carriers can go through it. They're too big. I tell Zoneys: 'You really need to get over this. You can't turn back time.' In many ways, I'm a voice in the wilderness."

Wilderness is what the Panama Canal came from. The French, builders of Egypt's Suez Canal, first attempted the massive dig, starting in the 1880s. They failed miserably. Their digging machines bit gnat-like into the mud. Worse, workers and their families died horribly because the French failed to control mosquitoes carrying fever and malaria.

The United States took over the project in 1904. The Americans had learned from French mistakes, and they possessed more powerful machines. Slowly, the earth opened. The digging involved as many as 50,000 men at a time.

Roughly 5,600 died during 10 years of construction. Ninety percent of the workers were black West Indians, many of whom died in the explosions that created Culebra Cut, a snaking nine-mile canyon at the Continental Divide. They mostly came from Jamaica and Barbados, in search of better pay.

When the work was done, many returned home rather than live in black shanty towns that contrasted sharply with the spacious quarters built for whites and their families.

In those days, Panamanians welcomed Americans and their creation, sometimes called the Eighth Wonder of the World.

But that was then. More than eight decades later, Panamanians want control of their land. Most workers in the PCC are now Panamanian as U.S. citizens are being phased out.

Zonians complain openly that Panamanians will ruin the canal because they won't pay as much attention to detail as Americans. However, said Karrer, 62, the amateur historian, "the British said the same thing when the Egyptians took over the Suez Canal," which is running fine after 30 years in Egyptian hands.

In 1964, a group of Panamanian students who tried to hoist their flag at Balboa High School were attacked by Zonians. The incident led to riots, and Panamanian nationalists embarked on a drive to take over the canal.

Fifteen years later, after six years of negotiations, Carter signed a treaty. Most Zonians moved to states with sultry climates, such as California, Texas and Florida. They've set up Internet Web sites to give cyberhugs to long-lost friends.

But paradise was lost. What many found instead was culture shock.

For Orion Cronin Hyson, it meant life without warmth and friends. "The States for me meant my mother's family farm in upstate New York, which was cold," Hyson said. "Often it was gray. I was used to being surrounded by people--a gardener, a nanny, a washerwoman who was around twice a week. In the States, we didn't have help."

"It's sad," said Geiger, the former Zonian, recalling her three years there. "It's as if something's been taken from me that I can never get back again. It's as if someone has wiped the community off the face of the planet. It's kind of spooky. It's kind of weird. It's as if someone has died."

CAPTION: Former Zonian Bob Karrer talks about his time in the Panama Canal Zone at the National Museum of American History. Behind him are fellow Zonians Margherita Fairchild, left, Lori Geiger and Karrer's daughter, Sara.