In a recent letter, a good friend of ours from New York, Loretta Davis, wrote the following: "Even though the start of the new year is Jan. 1, the start of a mother's new year is September. New shoes, new book bags, new routines and the end of summer."

I know exactly what she means. Not only is September a month of new beginnings, it's also a time of year to take stock - to recall where we've been and to look at how far we've come since the last time the jangle of school bells announced that class was again in session.During these first few weeks of September, I take a certain quiet happiness in stepping onto my front porch when the morning air still tastes cool so I can watch the neighborhood kids trudge off to school while remembering what they were like not so very long ago. Veronica sitting on her porch in diapers. Kiel being tossed into the air by his father. Amy standing in my fall garden, asking if she could please help me plant those pansies for the following spring. Schuyler receiving his Arrow of Light. Richard chasing a soccer ball up the green spread of lawn in front of my house.

In fact, watching them (these children of other people) traveling their separate paths from infancy to young adulthood has been for me one of the unexpectedly sweet things about getting older. I realized this with a start one evening when Ken and I ran into a couple whose son I used to coach on a Little League baseball team. "You should see Mike now," they told us, "He's so big he fills up an entire room."

Mike? The boy with the freckles and sleepy grin who once made an impromptu beeline from second base to homeplate in the middle of an inning because he wanted to get a cherry snowcone from the snack bar and didn't see the point of third base anyway? Little Mike? Big enough to fill up an entire room? Suddenly I was filled with an overwhelming desire to see this spectacular child and (just for the pure fun of it!) watch him dust a ceiling with the hair on his head as he passes through a room. I wanted to stand at his Goliath-size feet and throw pebbles to get his attention. I wanted to squeak like a munchkin, "Hello up there! I represent the Lollipop Guild!"

I recall the September my friend Becky and I took her toddler Emma to the State Fair. Emma was just a little over a year old but insisted on walking everywhere on peach-colored legs, pointing and jabbering and making us see what she had seen for herself through gentian blue eyes. The late summer sun crowned her fine hair with light, while the afternoon breezes billowed out her full organdy dress, and if you were fanciful you could say she looked exactly like a baby queen with two grownup ladies-in-waiting, trailing respectfully in her wake.

At one point that afternoon my friend scooped up her daughter and (teasing) said, "OK, Emma, I'm warning you! DON'T BREAK MY HEART!"

Emma is a teenager now - smart, savvy, blue-eyed beautiful, ever able and always funny. She's a good daughter, a good sister, a good friend with just enough sass to make her interesting. If I could special order a girl, I'd ask for an Emma. I'm very proud of her. And so, of course, is her mother. Still, I suspect Emma breaks a small part of her mother's heart every day as she grows into a woman and forever leaves the little girl at the fair behind them both.

You wouldn't want it any other way, of course. But there it is. Your own children hold your heart in their hands as casually as they hold the gathering of gravel and sticks and bits of shell they want you to examine. Perhaps that's why it's so wonderful to watch other children grow up, you love them, but you have a certain distance from them, too.

My youngest boy, Quinton, started kindergarten this year. He wasn't the least bit nervous or sad about leaving me behind on the playground with the other mothers as he loped like a St. Bernard puppy into the classroom. He just turned and gave me a quick wave with the flat of his hand to reassure me. And then he was gone.

I was happy to see him happy, for sure I have plenty of things I'd rather do than coax a reluctant child into the classroom. Still, the sight of his small hand reminded me of a story my friend Marilyn told me. One afternoon as her husband began to wipe the prints of many small hands from their plate glass window, she cried, "Oh, please don't do that yet. I want to memorize exactly what they look like when they're this size.

"I want to remember."