By Elizabeth McGinley

"Mom, I'll just sit in the back of the car," said my 15-year-old daughter, Kathleen. That's new, I thought. Usually, any run to the mall with my two teenagers begins with an argument over who gets to ride up front. (Proximity to the radio, not good ol' Mom, is the draw.) But this was no ordinary shopping trip. My older daughter wasn't with us, and we weren't going to "our" mall, that is, the one closest to our Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood. Instead, we were headed to a mall near where Kathleen's new friends from her suburban high school live. As we picked up her third and last best-friend-forever, Kathleen asked, "Do you know how to get to this mall, Mom?"

"You bet," I said. "It's five minutes away from my first apartment. I used to go there a lot after work - to get things like picture hooks or shower curtains, to grab a quick bite, or . . ."

"No way," said a voice from the back, "is that Greg from school in that blue car?"

Boy in the fast lane vs. a trip down memory lane? No contest. I resumed my professional chauffeur-mom stance: efficient, discreet and, above all, silent. When we arrived at the mall, I pointed out a bench where we should meet, turned, and found myself addressing air. My passengers were four young women on a mission - "dressy dresses" and shoes for their freshman dance - and were already 20 paces away. I felt an unexpected pang: Where was the little girl who never said good-bye to me without adding, "Love you"?

"Having fun," I chided myself. "Now enjoy your alone-time. After all, that Starbucks wasn't here 18 years ago." I went inside, bought an iced decaf from the unimpressed barista, and sat down to watch the passing parade of shoppers. I remembered how in my single days I would notice family after family go by as I ate dinner alone at my favorite "bagel-teria." (That sandwich shop is long gone, too.) At times, especially if the kids were cooing or quiet, I envied the parents' domestic coziness. But when I became a mom myself, pushing a double stroller throughout another mall and promising ice cream to good little girls who did not stand up in their seats, I pined for those solitary, peaceful dinners.

"Mommy, that girl looks like Madison, doesn't she? The one in my dance class?" Shaking off the ghosts of Malls Past and Way Past, I glanced over at a mother and little girl sitting at a table near the coffee shop's window. The young mother was playing with her empty coffee cup, her eyes distant, her mind seemingly not on the tiny Kelly Ripa look-alike who stopped chatting only long enough to noisily sip some lemonade. I wanted to tap the mom on the shoulder and hiss, "Pay attention." It all goes so quickly.

Of course, I didn't. That mother might have been exhausted from listening, listening, listening, or in desperate need of sleep or time to herself. Who am I to judge?

As they grew, did I give my daughters my complete attention all the time, and would I have heeded if a strange woman had told me to savor each season of life? Can any of us fully appreciate what we have when we have it? I grabbed my half-finished coffee and headed back to the mall.

Four hours (and $$$$) later, I met my daughter and her shopping posse at the appointed hour and bench. I half-expected them to say no when I asked, "Any luck shopping?" But each of the girls had found a nice dress, and even shoes! Kathleen's dress was perfect - sophisticated but not overly so, a flattering color, and reasonably priced. Good job, Kathleen.

Guess my "little girl" is entering a new, more independent season in her life (and mine) that I should welcome and learn to appreciate . . . before the next one comes along.

Elizabeth McGinley lives and writes in Philadelphia.