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I never understood why my mother cried when I left home for college.

She would stand on the porch of our tin-roofed duplex and watch me drive away in my Datsun B-210, tracing the path of the mighty Duck River on my way out of Mule Town.

I would watch her in my rear-view mirror, getting smaller and smaller. First, she would dab a tissue to her nose and then her shoulders would begin to shake. Yep, there she goes crying again, I thought.

This didn't just happen the first time I left for college; it happened every time. But what I mistook for oversentimentality was actually a depth of love you can only really understand after becoming a parent.

Mom was the breadwinner in our family — my father was disabled. She was the head teller at the downtown branch of the First Farmers and Merchants Bank in my hometown, Columbia, Tenn. She was known as a cheery, people pleaser who bent over backwards to help customers — like opening their lock boxes five minutes before closing time and helping them make deposits to their Christmas Club accounts.

My sister says we were poor back in the 1960s, but I don't remember it that way. I just thought we had exactly what we needed and not a penny more. I never really went without things, even when not going without meant a Spam sandwich and glass of powdered milk.

I know now that the reason I didn't understand mother's tears at 18 years old was because my brain was not fully formed. At 18, even softhearted kids are self-centered by design.

In order to leave the nest, teenagers develop an aversion to sentimentality. Honestly, it's more like a persistent irritability toward any form of parenting.

I remember once leaving home on a Sunday afternoon in an ice storm. My mom asked me sweetly to call her as soon I got to Murfreesboro so she'd know I got there safely.

Of course I forgot. This was before cellphones. The next time she heard from me was a week later. If something similar happened to me today, I'd be coming out of my skin.

In his own way, my dad was caring, too. I was the only kid I knew who had studded snow tires in Middle Tennessee — a place that averaged less than 2 inches of snow a year. My dad fought in Korea, and his internal thermostat never really reset to mid-South norms. He always thought it was colder — and thus potentially snowier — than it really was.

So my Mom cried, and my dad bought me snow tires.

Now that I have a 17-year-old son and a pile of college recruiting letters on the kitchen table, these memories have more urgency.

Sometimes now, when my son leaves for school in the morning, I watch him shut the back door and disappear. I imagine what it will be like when he won't be back for a month — or a semester.

Technology has progressed to the point that I can track his movements through his mobile phone or text him on any pretext: "What do you want for dinner?" Friends with adult children say they respond to texts in days, not minutes. This is a digital native's way of saying, "Back off."

In the end, though, there's no substitute for physical proximity. So we parents do what we can and steel ourselves for separation.

Yesterday I caught myself kneeling in the driveway inspecting my son's tires. In my mind, I carved out room in the family budget to buy a new set before he goes off to school.

Some impulses are genetic, I suppose. For Kennedy men, tires represent the circle of life.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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