When my sons were little, we played ball every day. The weather or season determined the sport. As the ball went back and forth in the yard, the street, the driveway or the basement, they would talk to me about whatever was going on in their heads.

One winter, we had four thermocouples replaced on our basement furnace from errant hockey pucks. The repairman thought I was nuts.

Unlike my husband, Mike, I am no athlete. I can throw and catch, but that's about it. When our oldest got to be about 11, he asked me to catch while he practiced his pitching and I almost got my head knocked off with the first pitch.

I knew I needed to find another sport I could play with him - something that wouldn't cause me bodily harm. So we bought a ping-pong table and put it in the living room.

It sounds weird, but it was great. I learned that our teenage boys enjoyed talking to me if we were doing something that didn't require sustained eye contact.

For 12 years, people would come in our front door and say, "You aahh...have a ping pong table in your living room."

As I hung up their coats, I'd reply, "Yeah. I realize that."

According to experts, you shouldn't center your entire life around your husband and kids, but I did. As the boys began to leave the nest, I figured out why the experts said what they said.

When our oldest went away to college, I continued to take six plates out of the cabinet for the kids to set the dinner table. They corrected me: "Mom! We only need five now!"

I just couldn't get it through my head that he was not coming home for dinner.

When our second son went away to college, I developed an eye twitch. I thought something was terribly wrong. I wondered why people didn't ask me what was wrong when they spoke to me, because it felt like half my face was shaking. It took three weeks, but it went away.

When our third son went away to college, I got a pit in my stomach that made me feel hungry even after I'd eaten an entire meal. I took long walks, had a few good cries and it, too, went away.

When our last son went away to college, I pressed the repeat button on the CD player in the kitchen so that the house wouldn't seem so quiet. We put the ping-pong table in the garage and bought a couch, a couple of chairs and a puppy.

The empty nest was hard at first, but we've learned that it doesn't stay empty too long. Someone is always coming home - and usually bringing a friend.

The living room is pretty now and everything matches. When people come in the front door they say, "Oh! You finally got furniture."

Privately reminiscing, I answer, "Yeah. I realize that."

I'm sure the experts are right, but if I had it to do again, I'd still center my life around Mike and the boys.

And I wouldn't change too many things - especially those living room ping-pong games. They were simply priceless.

(Mrs. Bonanno is a parishioner of St. Mary's Church in Albany.)