WHAT DID I DO ON MY SUMMER VACATION? I agonized over the impending departure of my older son, Philip, who was heading off to college in mid-August. Although I told Philip a couple of times how much I would miss him, I tried to hide the depth of my maternal woe. Whenever possible I made light of my emotions—say, by belting out, “Sunrise, sunset . . . ” to his feigned disgust.

Philip, however, was more than ready to venture into the great big, wonderful, child-eating world. At eighteen, he is (I cannot tell a lie) bright and funny and mature. It was time for him to leave the nest. One afternoon, when his brother, Parker, and I were getting on his nerves, I said, “Don’t worry, honey; you’ll be out of here in six weeks.” Through gritted teeth, he replied, “Thirty-nine days.”

As August arrived, glassy-eyed friends with college-bound kids revealed that they were facing a pack-a-thon. Such duties might have reduced my angst, but Philip, being a fashion minimalist, required only minor preparation. We shopped for linens, a laptop, and a small fridge, but otherwise he just laundered his entire wardrobe and stuffed it into duffel bags along with toiletries, Tide, and cherished doodads. When I suggested that he ditch T-shirts and shorts that were too baggy or frayed, he grinned and said, “Mom, those are my favorite clothes.”

Philip is attending Rice University, in Houston, a school long known as the “Harvard of the South” and, more recently, as the heavy hitter of college baseball. It’s also my, uh, owl-ma mater (I graduated several presidents ago). Thus, by the time we drove up to his dorm, it was déjà vu meets boo-hoo, and my emotions were moving at about the speed of the split-fingered fastball made famous by another Philip, Rice’s star pitcher Philip Humber. A small-town girl, I was intimidated by Houston’s bustling sprawl and the school’s imposing quadrangle when I arrived at Rice as a seventeen-year-old, but Philip was raised in Austin and is no stranger to the campus and its lore.

As veteran parents of college students know, there is nothing like lugging heavy boxes up the stairs to sweat a lot of tears right out of you, especially in the sultry Bayou City. At lunch, our drenched family cooled off in the Baker College commons (the dining room of his dorm, to translate Rice-speak). Afterward, the inevitable Velcro moment arrived: time to rip myself away and head home with only one son in tow. I held Philip and told him I loved him, and I teared up when he told me I was brave. But I didn’t cry, even when—in a first since they were in preschool—he hugged his brother. Then we left him at the door, smiling, waving, lit up with excitement.

On the drive home, Parker and I discussed the day—he remarked that Rice had “a high fox factor”—and when I grew silent he cheered me up with sage observations on Philip’s absence (“Think what we’ll save on air freshener!”). When we turned the corner onto our street, though, and I saw his old Honda, I thought automatically, “Philip’s home.” That’s when I cried. He was home—home just wasn’t my house anymore. The car now belongs to Parker, a high school senior who will leave for college next summer.

Then I can dab my eyes with all those leftover apron strings.