cafe mama

finding magic every day

[this piece was adapted into an essay. I write about this here.]

veteran's day heroes . november 11 . 2010

On Veteran's Day, it is not even a week since my own soldier has boarded an airplane, returning to Kuwait after his 15-day leave, and I spend the slow morning with barley-rye pancakes, with cold-pressed apple cider, with Cartoon Network for my boys on TV. On Veteran's Day in my muddy, coffee-steeped neighborhood in southeast Portland, what do I celebrate? There are no veterans here; my grandfathers and great-grandfathers are stories too old to tell these boys. Grandpa Green -- Grampy to us -- was a map-maker in World War II, he carried the shrapnel from an errant bomb in his hip to his grave. Uncle Mike was in Korea, and all I know of it was his gravelly voice, grown in the war, I was always sure, until my cousin Shawn (he, the gentlest adult man I could ever have imagined) grew it too.

I have no ritual of celebration, no communion of Army wives to gather 'round, no cultural context for this holiday. I dimly think, it should be mine, but how? What should we do? I gather my breath, gather my thoughts, and lunge in my mind a dozen times. But nothing comes to me, I look at the boys, huddled under blankets watching boy-heroes fight aliens and monsters and bad guys with thunder, with fire. I leave them be, I sweep the floor. When it is bedtime, when I have read them all to sweet rain-speckled sleep, I find my own place in this war effort. I stand in my kitchen, I survey my battle landscape.

There is honor in the locking of doors; there is pride in laundry, started, shifted to dryer, folded piece by inside-out piece; there will be great rejoicing whence cometh the erranding hero, fresh from her victory over things broken, pantry stores depleted, books required!

I have been reading records of war; I have been reading missives from sorrowful wives on the homefront; I have been standing in my kitchen, head cocked, listening to my husband's quiet, introspective voice, faraway, faraway. I am the keeper of photos; I am the teller of family tales; I am the donner of coats. I live a legend's life, if your legends come straight through the ages from classical epic, Greek myth, the even-est of recountings of meals eaten gluttonously, vessels storm-tossed, flesh stabbed and torn ungodly.

Take a Greek legend, if you will. Hector, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Athena, Andromache, every grief-wracked last one of them. Achilles, say: man/god, legendary warrior, godlike ideal of male beauty, valour; deeply wrong, deeply wronged, ripped with woe, petty, anguished, alone. But for the shredding of flesh, the man-killing, I could be Achilles on any given day. Pierced through with the strife of it all -- the boys, refusing shoes with a puckish laugh, screaming and kicking when I tell them, 'go this way!' -- I growl, stomp, shout, grab wrists so hard they shine red, rage so that I want to rip out my own throat, hold it pulsing over the sidewalk battle field. I catch myself, give remorse a chance, apologize and, hoarse, crawl into my hollow chest a minute, sorrowing that I've fallen into the tragedy of this.

The military wives I find in books, in newspapers, on my Twitter stream are textbook models, forever buying a new couch in new city, used to cold temperatures and the empty looks in their children's eyes as they drive across the Interstate to another home. They know all the acronyms and that you're supposed to keep a Power of Attorney form in the front of your family file folders. They have words for departures and reunions that are better than mine. "Hail and farewells," I read, "the singular distinction of loving, and being loved by, an American soldier." These women are heroines, leading ladies, their faults belong in a job interview: "too loyal," perhaps, "loves husband more than self." I read how much they ache for their departed soldiers, how they look at their children and see their father's eyes and their knees go weak, their lungs deflate in loss. They call them "my man," they scramble for the phone, they stock an admirable care package.

Not me. My care packages are few and my conceits are many. Self-absorbed, distracted by my domestic theater from the one overseas, wrapped up in the passions of three boys, who ask for pumpkin pie, who ask for hours on the playground, who ask for honey vanilla mint ice cream. I spend little in the way of time pining, time writing letters long and torrid, time gazing at my husband's photos or inhaling the scent of his belongings. Me, I'm all hero. Like my forebears in the epic tales of war, I have fatal flaws by the bushel.

And virtues, any great hero is riddled with yin, with yang. My hair is fair, my arms are white and freckled, my heroic epithets are plentiful. I am Sarah, keeper of chickens, washer of dishes, peeler of tomatoes, she who scrubs the floor of its stains of mud, chocolate, pee. My heroic tasks are more plentiful than any Eurystheus could devise. Here is what I am doing for the war effort: making jam by the pint-dozens, scrubbing mold from the icebox drawers, lugging compost in buckets and shovelfuls, slicing apples, tying shoes, putting up two-and-a-half quarts of a rich onion beef stock. For you, America, I meet with teachers and counselors and principals and occupational therapists; my patriotic duty demands I keep full the bin of thick-cut oats.

Serving my country with my carrot peeler, with whisk broom, heady with the glory from picking up two boys from school, I have no time to count the days until his return. Am I cut from a different cloth, am I a wandering stranger in this foreign realm, have I any right to claim the trope of the waiting wife? I cast off the shroud of Penelope and lift high the garments of a thousand women and men, Aegeans and Acheans and Trojans and the pioneers from the Oregon Trail. Piecing together a cloak of many virtues and flaws, textures and hues in comforting chaos, home in my lyrical inepic battle arena. Sarah, constant, changeable, keeper of passions, bearer of woes, she of the loud voice, she who wipes the tears of young boys, wife of an Army Reservist at war.

paying the bills

read my previous post . re-entry . october 21 . 2010