Natalie, 18, had awakened at 7 a.m. for last-minute packing, and by 8 the sidewalk in front of the Wrights' East Oak Lane home was strewn with an electric fan, a computer, a stereo, and duffel bags stuffed with clothes. The back seats of the family's two cars were packed too, and Leo Wright, Natalie's father, was tying a bookshelf to the roof.
Inside, Natalie gobbled down cottage cheese, made a final check of her bedroom, said goodbye to Cory the golden retriever, and then, in her quiet but firm manner, let it be known that she wanted to get going.
Nobody budged. Dad was downing a doughnut. Natalie's mother, Cynthia, exchanged family reminiscences with cousin Debra Hutcheson. And Natalie's older sister, Donielle, who had been through all this a year ago when she packed off to Princeton for the first time, sipped another glass of water.
Ten of nine: ``I'm really anxious to get going,'' Natalie said.
Five of nine: ``Are we ready?''
Nine o'clock: ``OK, I'm ready. I'm going outside.''
* Natalie Wright's experience yesterday is being repeated all this week and next as roughly 1.9 million high school graduates across the country shed their senior status and return to the bottom of the pile as college freshmen.
For the 140 freshmen arriving at Immaculata College on Sunday, for 4,600 who start classes at Temple University Aug. 31, for 331 new faces entering Neumann College the same day, for Natalie and 321 other Haverford freshmen, this has been a summer of fear, anticipation and growth. They've been preparing for this milestone: stashing money from a summer job, spending that money on comforters and popcorn poppers for their dorm rooms, making contact with the utter strangers who by chance will be sharing those dorm rooms with them.
For Cynthia and Leo Wright and many other parents, meanwhile, the summer has brought sobering calculations about how to pay tuition, as well as wistfulness at seeing their children moving on. How quiet will the house be now?
* After the 40-minute drive to Haverford yesterday, the Wrights turned down College Lane and skirted the mallards strolling contentedly by the Duck Pond, as if purposely placed there by Haverford staff to ensure the proper first impression for arriving freshmen.
At Barclay Hall, the Wrights had barely opened the car doors when a blizzard of upperclass volunteers in white T-shirts descended on them with smiles and hellos and youthful enthusiasm to help carry Natalie's belongings up three flights of stairs. Soon cars with Massachusetts, Maryland and New York plates arrived, and the dorm was abuzz with sweaty, puffing parents hauling computers and bags through the humid halls.
After gathering her room key, a course catalog and other essentials, Natalie returned to arrange her tiny room. She stared at her belongings piled in the hallway and laughed. ``It didn't look like that much at home, but it sure looks like a lot of stuff now.''
Cynthia Wright turned to Donielle and said, ``All I can say is there will be a few things coming back home.''
About 11:30, a tall, blond teenager timidly peeked into the room. ``Natalie?'' she asked.
It was Natalie's roommate, Jacki Bascom, followed by her father, Hunt, who had flown in from Pleasanton, Calif. At lunch, the two girls sat together, subtly taking each other's measure: What music do you like? Do you play sports? What will you major in?
* Natalie Wright played field hockey in high school, performed in the choir, spent a month as an exchange student in Mexico, and includes among her interests architectural design, playing piano and writing poetry. A solid pick for any college admissions office.
But early in her senior year at Germantown Friends School, Natalie didn't want to apply to college. She wanted to work for a year. She had endured a bout with depression, which she later described in an essay: ``One night I lay on my back on the bed . . . and could not breathe. My sadness was so deep and so asphyxiating that I felt I would drown in it. I shot up, gasping for air, knowing that I could not stay under and survive.''
The problem stemmed in part from Natalie's drive. She and her sister both got good grades, but while Donielle finished an assignment and headed for the TV, Natalie labored over the smallest projects late into the evening, shooting for perfection.
With treatment, Natalie recovered, and ended the year with stellar grades. In the meantime, she sent applications to Bryn Mawr and Haverford.
She had leaned toward Haverford because she liked the Quaker influences of her high school, and preferred a coeducational setting. Haverford's slightly more beneficent aid package clinched the decision. To help cover $30,230 in tuition, room and board, Natalie will rely on work-study income, grants and student loans. The average aid package for Haverford's freshmen this year is $19,990.
It had always been assumed the Wright sisters would go to college. Their parents both attended Temple. During the summer, Leo Wright peppered Natalie with college advice. ``I told her to be flexible, to learn what makes other people tick, because I think part of college is to learn about people and their differences,'' he said. And another thing. ``With so much freedom and time and new people around, I hope she doesn't get distracted from her work with a hobby or boyfriend.''
* The summer that ended yesterday for Natalie threw many new experiences her way. Her first real job, for instance. Though the sky was clear and sunlight dappled teasingly through summer's dense green foliage, Natalie stood several weeks ago inside a Boscov's outlet store, surrounded by aisles of shoes.
Natalie ripped open waist-high cardboard shipping cartons, pulled out green shoeboxes, lifted out white sneakers, and removed the brown packing paper stuffed into each sneaker toe.
Among her other duties in Boscov's shoe department was to shelve shoes customers had tried on and discarded. A pile of abandoned shoes caught Natalie's eye, and she sighed as she picked them up. But the sigh signaled only faint dismay at her job. ``I'm just glad to be making money on my own,'' Natalie said. ``I like the sense of independence it brings.''
Lots happened to Natalie this summer that added to that sense of independence, that sense of growing up. She got her learner's permit to drive. She opened her own bank account and wrote a few checks. And there were forays for college essentials.
``OK, what's first?'' Natalie asked her mother as they grabbed a shopping cart one recent August afternoon and ventured into the cool cavernous aisles of a Caldor.
``Well, we need bookshelves, a lamp, the comforter,'' Cynthia Wright said, leading her daughter toward the furniture.
As Natalie wandered off to flip through some CDs, Cynthia Wright spoke about what her daughter's departure will mean to her and her husband. Mixed feelings bubbled forth. ``This is the first summer without the usual family evening time together,'' Cynthia Wright said. ``Donielle has her social life, and Natalie is working. Life is changing.
``This summer is such a thrill for Natalie. It's fun to see her make the steps towards independence. As a parent that's what you strive to do - teach her to be self-sufficient.''
But still, there's that tug, the pain at letting go. Cynthia has spent the summer talking with her friends, other women who are losing their sons and daughters to college. ``We sort of joke about it,'' she said, ``but there is a real concern at the empty nest.''
``I'm really worried about them,'' Natalie had confided. ``The house is going to seem really big. No noise. When Donielle left it was so quiet.'' Donielle used to keep the radio and TV on, and the first few weeks she was away at Princeton, Natalie walked through the house and flipped on the TV, just to fill the quiet with familiar noise.
Leo Wright said having both daughters gone would be ``extremely strange. There's really going to be a gap in our lives now.'' To help fill the void, he and Cynthia plan to eat out at a restaurant one night a week.
Both Natalie and Donielle have large stuffed teddy bears in their rooms. When Donielle went off to Princeton, Cynthia Wright, to ward off the emptiness at her daughter's absence, sometimes entered Donielle's silent bedroom, picked up her bear, and gave it a hug. ``This fall I guess I'll be sitting there with both bears,'' Cynthia Wright said, and laughed.
Her musings were suddenly shattered by the urgency of the task at hand. Natalie had reappeared at her side. ``I'm also going to have to get an alarm clock,'' she was saying. ``Mine's broken.''
As mother and daughter leaned against the half-filled shopping cart, strategizing on what to do about a lamp, a bookshelf, a comforter, Natalie described the CD player she craved. ``I know what I'd like - a graphic equalizer,'' she said.
Cynthia Wright started to offer a suggestion, but Natalie dismissed it with quiet, firm conviction.
``The days of picking something up for them and them being so happy just to have it are gone,'' Cynthia Wright said. She smiled, and let slip a little sigh.