WE DIDN'T NOTICE our mother struggling, searching for something. Always she had been just Mom, the lady who yelled at you for tracking dirt in the kitchen and tucked checks in your birthday card. So there we sat, in the bleachers of a university auditorium in Chicago, not understanding much. The band played "Pomp and Circumstance," exploding flashbulbs glittered in the crowd. The graduates marched by carrying banners, and she smiled and waved from a sea of black gowns. My father cried. We waved and laughed and yelled: "Hi, Mom!"

My mother is 52 years old and last month she graduated from college. It took eight years, commuting 30 miles each way to the University of Illinois at Chicago from her home in the suburbs. She graduated at the top of her class, was awarded scholarships and honors for her academic work. She did this quietly and without much fuss.

Sometimes she complained about her grades, the irregularities of French verbs, or the stomach cramps she got before tests. But we had paid it hardly any mind. It was, after all, just Mom, the one who used to iron patches on your jeans. What was she up to?

Our family and a few friends met after the ceremony for dinner. I had pictured my parents marking the occasion with a tender embrace. But Mom aped and clowned in front of the camera, my father looked nostalgic and stood to the side. Maybe we had made too much of this graduation, I thought. But she was luminous. She radiated pride in a way we had not seen before. It was only the acknowledgment and expression of it that was difficult for her. She'd been taught to keep a low profile.

My mother was never a revolutionary. Our family never knew divorce. We never had to deal with a mother who wanted to be more than what we were used to, a Mom ready to start a new life. There must be thousands like her: women, mothers, wives who still believe in values handed down by an earlier generation, but also dream of more. There must be thousands who, like her, never ventured out on their own, but followed the women's movement alone with a cup of coffee in their suburban kitchen, reading and digesting the new ideas. There must be thousands who felt empty and now recall, as my mother does, that until then: "I thought I was the only one who felt that way."

My mother is gifted with intelligence, drive and creativity, but her parents taught her not to think or expect much for herself. She remembers her father with amusement. "You think somebody just dreamed up Archie Bunker?" she says. "They didn't dream him up. That was somebody's father. That was my father." A grade school dropout of stubborn, Danish stock, he hated Italians and blacks and Jews and Irish and intellectuals and Democrats, people of every sort. What I remember of him is a man in the last months of his life shriveled and gnarled by Parkinson's disease, curled up helplessly in a rocking chair drinking water through a glass straw, as if all the hate and ignorance were eating him alive.

He was a broker at Chicago's Mercantile Exchange, forbade his wife to work, and they lived in a modest flat over a beauty salon on the city's north side. As a teen-ager, my mother was striking: trim figure, wide smile and long, golden hair. He would not have her going to a public school, and sent her to North Park Academy -- a white, middle- class outpost founded by Swedish Protestants -- where she excelled in music and joined the cheerleading squad.

My mother keeps an album of photographs from that time: She is in a bathing suit, smiling, on Lake Geneva; in a letter sweater and pleated skirt, bent backwards, smiling, aping a cheerleading pose; in an evening gown, holding a nosegay in her lap, smiling, at the senior dance; in cap and gown, head tilted toward the camera, smiling, at high school graduation.

Beside these are photos of her that her father took: Standing at an ironing board in rolled-up dungarees, blonde waves hanging listlessly, eyes hidden behind a pair of thick- rimmed glasses; bent over some sewing, mouth agape, hair pulled back hastily in a bun and the same ugly glasses. "He used to like to catch me by surprise," my mother says now. "It was his idea of a joke." But the vision of her in those pictures is a cynical one.

"I was his baby," she says. "His little girl."

The stomach cramps started in high school. She got them every time she went out on a date. Curfew was 10 p.m., but she risked her father's ire by ignoring it regularly. None of her friends had a curfew that early. Once, when she stayed at a dinner party past midnight, her father sent her mother out in her nightgown to fetch her home in a taxicab.

My parents dated through high school and the four years my father studied business at Northwestern, but her father never spoke to the steady beau. When he refused to acknowledge their engagement, my mother took the telephone into the bathroom and made the wedding invitations behind a locked door.

Her girlfriends left after high school for private colleges in the Midwest. Not so much to learn a career, she says, but to have fun and, perhaps, find a husband. Her father kept her at home, and they fought vigorously and often. "Nobody in my family had gone to college," she says. "Girls especially didn't go to college. If you weren't married, then you did something practical. They kept telling me to learn typing and shorthand."

Since grade school she had been drawing fashion designs and thought of a job along the same line. Her father sent her to Katharine Gibbs secretarial school, where protocol dictated white gloves and hats. Her parents couldn't have been more pleased when she was hired as a secretary at the Northern Trust Co. "They were very impressed. The bank had wall-to-wall carpeting and its own cafeteria. They thought someday I might be secretary to one of the executives in a big office." My mother acquiesced, thinking: "They never once thought of me having one of those offices."

My parents were married in 1950 and over the next dozen years my father prospered as a salesman for Fuller Brush. My mother bore five children. There were marital disputes, some more intense than others, and often we heard my mother complain, "I can't do anything because of you kids," although she never said what "anything" meant. We built a large and comfortable house on a golf course in an exclusive subdivision 30 miles outside the city. When the kids began drifting off to college, Mom started looking for "anything."

She enrolled in a school for travel agents, but was fired from her first job after two weeks "because I didn't have any experience." When my father started his own business, she kept the books. But the country- club life depressed her. She was allergic to the fertilizer on the fairways, and the cocktail chat in the clubhouse nearly gave her hives. "All they wanted to talk about was golf scores and who was fooling around with whom." For her, the perfect lawns and swimming pools masked an intellectual Siberia.

She took classes at a nearby community college, psychology at first. She didn't know what she wanted, but found conversation and support in academe. "The only people who gave me a hard time were my friends," she says. The people of her own generation, the husbands and wives who were her bowling and theater partners, couldn't understand. "What do you want to go to school for?" they asked. "You can have anything you want."

She rediscovered art, losing herself in Vermeer and Hals in the art history department at the University of Illinois. The worry lines that once creased her brow began to fade away and she seems to have grown younger. But when I ask what she eventually plans to do, where her schoolwork is leading, she searches for words. "I'm really not looking for a career," she says. "I just like going to school." There were chances to study in Europe, or on the East Coast where degrees, she says, lead to jobs. But she declined. That would take her away from her husband and "I don't think that would be right." Maybe, she says, she can volunteer at the Art Institute.

Thus is my mother's future circumscribed by limits she believes in. She was brought up to think small and make sacrifices. A little bit of paradise is enough. She still keeps the books at the family business. Life on the golf course is comfortable, routine. This fall she starts work on her master's degree in art history at the University of Chicago. Her father, bless his soul, had hated the University of Chicago. It was, he used to say, filled with perverts, "eggheads" and Jewish communist conspiracies.

My mother says she's more worried about grades.