“When you have children of your own, you’ll understand.” That was a common refrain from my mother when my sister or I would express disagreement or frustration with her actions. In fact, that phrase had come out of her mouth so often before I was half-way through high school that it lost any real meaning to me. Its frequency, along with my teen-age self-absorption, turned those 9 words into nothing more than a cliche.

Becoming a parent 27 1/2 years ago changed that, and I marvel at the number of times since my son (and a few years later, my daughter) was born that those words — in my mother’s voice, no less — have flitted through my mind. In the past 8 1/2 years, that phrase has taken on a much deeper poignancy. Standing by our car in the parking lot of my son’s Ole Miss dorm, minutes from leaving him to start a new life as a college freshman, my role in his life and my perspective as a mother forever changed.

It has been over 8 years since my son has lived “at home” full-time and over 4 years since he has come home for 3 months every summer and for Christmas breaks. After his last visit, this past May, he left to begin his first “real job”. This year, for the very first time, he wasn’t home for either Thanksgiving or Christmas Day. But I’m lucky. Many parents didn’t get to spend any time with their children at either holiday; my son came for a 2-day visit just after Christmas, so the 3 of us (my son, daughter, and I) celebrated Christmas together then.

He left early Sunday morning. My daughter left this morning; after work today, she will head “back home” to where we lived until my husband passed away to spend New Year’s Eve with friends there. My house is empty and quiet.

As the silence of my home echoes around me, I remember back to when, in the first 8 years of our marriage when we lived in Texas and New Mexico, we came home for holidays or on vacation. I enjoyed our visits, but when I got back in the car with my husband and children, I looked forward. To being back in our home, back in our own routines, back to our life together. And to be honest, I don’t remember looking back. Not really. I called my parents when we arrived home to let them know we’d made it safely, and then I turned back to our lives. Oh, I’m pretty sure I briefly considered how my parents felt — I heard the catch in my mom’s voice when we talked on the phone, and I knew they missed us. But I didn’t really know. I couldn’t.

But I do now.