It wasn't the actual day we dropped off the middle daughter, Delphine, at USC that turned out to be the heartbreaker.
My ex-husband, our youngest daughter, Rosette, and I left her there in her dorm room after walking around the campus I recognized, having graduated from USC in 1982. (Her father, a UCLA fan, grumbled at the sight of possible football players.) Delphine had her books, her roommate, her numerous pairs of shoes and only the faintest glimmer in her eyes when she hugged me.
Then, a few days later, our oldest daughter, Gaila, left for Ohio, where she will be a junior at Oberlin College. Watching Gaila pack, Rosette laid out her clothes for her first day of high school, then clutched me dramatically and said, "I'm Beth."
Her voice was shivery and then given over to actual sobs. "I mean, I'm not dying, but ... ."
I knew. We watch "Little Women" every Christmas Eve. And our house is a strange replica of the March household in Concord, Mass., though we live in Riverside and my girls are mixed-race with long dark curls, and their father isn't off at the Civil War but three miles away in the house he bought 10 years ago. (I'm not as patient as Marmee, but I try.)
For my daughters, the eye-rolling, arguing and fierce closeness are the same as among the fictional sisters. And in the movie version, Beth says with a tear-streaked face, "Why does everyone have to leave? We've always been happy here."
I should have been the one crying, but I didn't have time. Rosette was bereft, the only word that fits. But I've known all their lives they would leave.
When Gaila was 9, and we were walking back from Rite-Aid -- where we went nightly for ice cream, my three little girls cruising the sidewalks under the carob and oak trees -- she said, "I'm worried about my SATs."
"What?" I said, incredulous.
"Well, if I don't get good SAT scores, I can't get into Kenyon."
I'd brought her a T-shirt when she was 3 from Kenyon College, in Ohio, after I did a reading there. She'd been wearing the shirt to bed for years.
When she was a senior in high school, we visited Kenyon, which didn't work for her, and Oberlin, which had sent her brochures (those SAT scores were high). She fell in love with Oberlin and never wavered or even considered staying in Southern California.
Two years ago, when I took Gaila to that leafy Midwestern campus, we flew in, took a bus, lugged our bags and, because I was clueless about how many parents would fill the single hotel, rented a room for two nights with a woman and her three cats. It wasn't in a cute Victorian B&B; but a forbidding tower of senior apartments, a musty, hot building where the elderly people in the elevator looked quizzically at us.
After I left Gaila at her dorm room, I walked the mile back and then passed the dark tower. I wasn't going to cry in that dim, fur-infested stranger's room. I circled blocks of sidewalk for another two hours. The tears stayed inside, like weird stinging pockets inside my skull, until I got all the way home.
If my daughters and I weren't so close, maybe this would be easier. Rosette and I didn't just lose two girls to college, we lost "Little Women."
This summer more than most, we were incredibly lazy and uncaring about the things contemporary families with teenage girls are meant to care about -- television, the latest clothes, going out. It was economically the worst summer ever for us. We watched rented DVDs (I neglected to get the converter box for our ancient television ) -- boxed sets of "Angel" and "Psych" and "Chuck." We played endless games of Scrabble, and we read on the couch, outside on the porch. It was so much like Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, in their season of mild deprivation, that we even called Delphine's boyfriend "our Laurie."
Now we are without Gaila and Delphine and all their friends, our Laurie and the others, the teenagers who've kept us laughing and cooking and crowded on the porch couch. That last night, with Rosette crying, Gaila rallied heroically for a 20-year-old trying to pack who could have said, "What's your issue?" or what she normally says, "Oh, my God, you are really Amy, the annoying spoiled baby who betrays everyone."
Instead she played one last epic game of Scrabble with us and with her friend, Carly, an expert musicologist. Gaila and Carly showed us a YouTube video of Chris Brown on "Sesame Street" when he was only 16. We tried to come up with a name for our proposed blog about mixed-race people. "Melangelato" and "Blended" were rejected. We dissected the term "duty booty" until we laughed so hard that we did, actually, cry.
Today, it's quiet here, so quiet that the dog keeps looking at passersby through the screen thinking it's the girls come home. All this time, I thought I wanted silence to write, so that I didn't have to sit in my van to work on my book, escaping the bedlam of all those teenagers eating everything and shouting at each other about borrowed earrings and leaving sandals like leather footprints everywhere and DVDs on every surface like alien coins from a large planet. Now there's only one teenager and her friends, hardly enough for bedlam, barely enough for noise.
I know something fundamental has changed in me. The noise and bodies and love have left a scar, which means quiet is a little painful now, and silence is something I'll never get used to, until they all come home again.