I read the first few pages of Melissa Seligman's book about her husband's second deployment, and my reaction was guttural, freaking: I am not prepared. Though Jonathan's mobilization will, it now appears, be sometime in early September, it exists in a theoretical world. This was too real, nausea, waving good-bye, eight-week-old nursing real. (Reading further, The Day After He Left for Iraq: A Story of Love, Family, and Reunion could be called either "simple" or "simplistic," and of its tone you could either say "pulls at your heart-strings" or "plaintive." And perhaps I simply, simplistically, am too far from the mother of the book to wholly enjoy it.) There is this: with a husband far gone an Army wife is really, really alone, left to doing everything from folding laundry to walking the few blocks to the market where I buy my coffee beans to raising the children without an extra hand, a supportive word, a simple adult presence to keep up the socially-accepted storefront of safety, alone.
Or is she? (Am I to be?) My first thought upon discovering that my husband would be leaving us, headed toward Iraq to serve as a truck driver in an Army infantry unit, was this: Penelope. While she perhaps had some warning before her husband set sail to "sack the famous town of Troy," (although all the Iliad says about it is that the warriors "drew a vessel in the water" "And Ulysses went as captain") she had no idea whether Odysseus had lived, or died, for the duration of the war and his journey home, not to mention the many years while Calypso was detaining him on a (tropical?) island somewhere. Many lines of the epic Greek poem are, in fact, devoted to her struggle to hold off the suitors, lusting for her missing husband's throne.
Next to Penelope or any one of millions of war wives throughout history and our Western literary canon, the modern Army wife has it made. Blessed with tours of duty as little as five or six, and no more than 15, months and near-daily communication with our loved ones, how can we take a place in the time-honored tradition of epistolary romances, the trope of the waiting wife, the indefinite and virtuous constance of so many wives who come before us? Is this constant communication, as Seligman suggests in her much more brief and artful New York Times essay, the very enemy of constance? Are email, vidcams and teleconferences the modern method of capturing the lioness in the toils, suitors, huntsmen, the gaesa of Connla, pervertedly destroying our most dear ones as the blade compels us, our voice over Skype that hidden place of God that is "the dooms of men"?
But perhaps I am mixing my mythology here. And a close reading indicates that it is not Penelope's story. It is not Penelope to whom the goddess Minerva speaks, emboldening her refusal. Instead it is her son, Telemachus, who -- like the sons today? -- is far more facile with sooth and prophecy, blessed with the ancient Greek version of today's wired culture. He's impatient, headstrong, overly solicitous of his mother... the woman who defines patience, managing to put off her suitors for three or four years by weaving a shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes, undoing the stitches every night after the suitors have tired of watching her needlework, off to kill goats and char pigs.
Will we be now, Telemachus-like, fickle and staticky as the wires which connect us, busy busy busy, unable to set aside the time for the kind of solitude, reflection and devotion that letter-writing requires? I must blog, and Tweet. After all.
In my nights and quiet bike rides, I wonder if our relationship will be much different from that of the wife and mother whose husband works long hours in a tall office building (while she comments on his Facebook posts with loving irony). I compare myself and other wives of Army and Marine reservists and Oregon National Guard soldiers to the longsuffering and stoic wives of wars past and I am ashamed to admit to any hardship. Here, life goes on much as it does for anyone whose partner is occasionally or permanently distant; there, then, life was utterly changed, young boys became men, grown taller than their fathers, women gathered together in solidarity, or turned on one another, calling a trusted friend a "hussy" out of grief and eternal concern.
When I am reading Yeats and Homer, here is how I see myself: on an Irish cliff somewhere, sturdy brown wool skirt billowing in the wind, listening for the echo of my husband's voice in the late afternoon sun. Here is how I will be: at my laptop, in pajamas, having our usual arguments via the internet. Will I?
Either I will wash my face and bring out my loom, Penelope-like, to do and undo a bit every day, waiting in skirts, wind-flapping, sketching out my life one word at a time. Or I will not, and I will despair and panic and watch too much Army Wives, eating ice cream on my couch, not-knitting.
Here is to me, as I see me, reading (being?) a quietly epic poem.
This is a version of a pitch for the Fall 2009 Oregon Humanities Journal. My essay was commissioned and published, here and, if you are a military wife who's compared yourself to Penelope, too, I'd love to chat. Mama at cafemama dot com. Also, Jonathan's deployment has been delayed again, (and again) until sometime in spring, 2010.